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A sprint to Times Square, the Las Vegas Strip: How international tourists spent their first hours in the US after travel ban lift

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Tourists arriving in the United States on the first day the international travel ban was lifted were treated to festivities across the country.

British Airways welcomed passengers Monday to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with frosted cookies shaped like yellow city cabs and big apples.

In Manhattan, the Empire State Building flashed red, white and blue lights, and a banner at the top of Red Steps in Times Square said: "Welcome Back World!"

Las Vegas passengers arriving at McCarran International Airport were greeted by showgirls and free swag, including face masks that read: "It's party time."

At Orlando International Airport in Florida, the airport snapped passengers' photos and handed out snacks.

After the greetings were done, the real vacationing began.

USA TODAY tagged along with travelers in New York City and Las Vegas.

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Setting foot in New York City: 'Everything I expected'

Rachel Burns' phone was dead after a seven-hour flight from Dublin to New York and her partner, Alan Lee, wasn't able to connect to Wi-Fi. They approached a New York City police officer for directions to their hotel after getting off the subway near Times Square late Monday afternoon. (She memorized the hotel address just in case.)

The couple headed to the DoubleTree hotel but Burns and Lee were only there long enough to check in on their teenage daughters and six-month-old puppy back in County Louth, Ireland.

It was 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. at home – and they wanted to start exploring the city Burns only knew from Times Square webcams and TikTok videos.

It was the couple's first visit to the U.S., a trip to celebrate Burns' 40th birthday. They booked the trip a few months ago unaware the U.S. was still closed to tourists from dozens of countries including the Republic of Ireland. In a stroke of Irish luck, the travel ban was lifted on Monday, the date they were due to travel. 

"To be honest, I didn't even think we were going to get here today," the 39-year-old cinema worker said. 

Their first stop on a walk around Times Square: Playwright Restaurant, an Irish pub.

"We were looking for an Irish bar to settle our nerves," Burns said. "The first night when you're just kind of away from home you want your comforts."

Both Burns and Lee had a Magners Original Irish Cider and headed out again. They ventured as far as Central Park, putting off a planned horse-drawn carriage ride to another day, and took a selfie on the Red Steps in Time Square before searching for another Irish pub.

"Our legs are just wrecked," said Burns, who walks nearly 4 miles at home every day with her dog.

Around 7 p.m., they ducked into The Mean Fiddler, an Irish bar tucked in between  the Brooks Atkinson Theatre showing "Six" and Andy's Deli on 47th street.

Burns and Lee were treated like celebrities as the pub saw a slow trickle of the returning international tourists it has been missing.

The manager sent over a complimentary shot of Jameson's Irish Whiskey, peach schnapps and watermelon – and then another, with a sparkler, for an early birthday celebration. They snacked on a bag of cheese and onion Tayto crisps, an Irish snack.

"It's just everything I expected," Burns said of their first day in New York.

On the agenda for the rest of the week: more walking plus the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and ice skating at Rockefeller Center or in Central Park.

"Everybody's saying Rockefeller Center but the tree's not up 'til Sunday and it won't be decorated," Burns said.

Lee isn't worried about the tree decorations as much as a spill on the ice.

"Which one will I not break me neck on?" he asked.

On Friday, Burns' birthday, the plans are to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island accompanied by dinner and "a mass of cocktails."

"We're Irish, like, come on," Burns said.

A night in Las Vegas: 'It's like Disney for adults'

Julien Yomtov of Paris stood by the baggage carousel at McCarran International Airport, checking his phone for updates from his friends.

The group had flown separately from France to Las Vegas on Monday afternoon and Yomtov's plane had beaten the others' by about 20 minutes. Their first item on the agenda was to grab a bite after dropping off their bags at the hotel, and then Yomtov was ready to get going.

It had been three years since he had been in Las Vegas, and there was plenty on his to-do list for the 11-day trip. Restaurants, shopping and playing cards at the World Series of Poker were the main focus of the trip.

As Yomtov scanned the crowd of passengers for his three friends, he said the excitement of being back in the U.S. hadn't quite kicked in.

"When I will realize (I'm in Las Vegas) is when I will be in the taxi on the street and see Bellagio, Venetian, Aria," Yomtov said.  

After a quick smoke break, Yomtov spotted his friends approaching the baggage claim. One broke out into dance at the sight of Yomtov, disco-pointing near the airport's slot machines. 

The four grabbed the remaining luggage and hustled outside toward the taxi queue, chatting in French. Their first stop of the night would be the Encore hotel to meet up with Yomtov's brother, Simon, who had arrived the night before. 

The brothers used to visit Las Vegas every year for the World Series of Poker, and Yomtov was ready to resume the annual tradition now that the travel ban had been lifted.

"We're like this," Yomtov said, holding up two fingers side by side. "For me, the U.S. represents the meeting of my brother and me and the time we can spend together. … Now we can start to spend time together in the best place in the world."

Yomtov had gone more than a year without seeing Simon, who lives in Israel, due to travel bans. They were finally able to reconnect in France this past summer, but Yomtov said the separation had been hard. 

Yomtov and his friends crowded into the taxi, where they talked about the hassle of entering the country – Yomtov's plane was delayed about an hour, and his friends said they spent two hours trying to get through customs in Paris.

But the stress of the day melted away once they stepped onto the Strip. Yomtov broke out into a dance under the Encore’s porte-cochere as the four exited the car. As the group checked into the hotel, Yoni Boccara, 39, grabbed a drink from the bar. 

Later that night, the group made sure to fit in a couple of hours of poker. Julien lost some of his cash – $600, "not a lot," he said – but it was all part of the Las Vegas experience. 

"It's like Disney for adults," Yomtov said. "When you come here, you forget the problems with the world, with family, with everything. You can spend only good time."

'A lot of weed': A first-timer's impression of Times Square

Harry Richards' 21st birthday was in March but his family put off celebrating until they could celebrate with his first trip to New York.

The family and one of Richards' pals traveled in style from London to JFK in Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class. They were greeted at JFK by a two-hour line to clear Customs and Border Protection checks but made it to midtown Manhattan in time for a late dinner.

Richards' first impression of Times Square on the walk from their hotel to dinner: "A lot of weed."

New York state lawmakers passed a bill in September legalizing the possession and use of recreational marihuana.

"It's not legal in our country but what we were just saying was we understand it's legal here but we can't understand how you can just stand in front of a police officer and get away with ... it like that," Richards said.

The group took a selfie in Times Square before burgers and other comfort food at Brooklyn Diner and then walked through Times Square on the way back to their hotel.

Richards, an electrician, and his 22-year-old friend, Harry Cartwright, a real estate agent, are looking forward to the signature  New York sights and foods like bagels and Junior's cheesecake with their family but also hope to go on a Hush Hip Hop Tour and to a New York Knicks game before they fly home on Sunday.

"We're trying to find some stuff that isn't really touristy," Cartwright said. "Do you know what I mean?  Something a bit more authentic."