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It was hard not to stare at the empty seat where a husband-to-be should have been, as a near-hysterical Slavic woman tried to locate her less-than-better-half by cellphone. You don't need a blood test to get married in New York, but city hall does require both parties to appear in person, concomitantly, before issuing a marriage licence. After a minute or so of tears and promises, the no-nonsense bureau clerk counted to 10 and then sent the poor weepy woman back to the waiting zone.

The woman had my sympathy, since there were only two clerks processing licences that day - my fiancée and I spent less time on our flight from Toronto to Newark, N.J., than we did at City Hall. But during the 90 minutes we spent wondering when our take-a-number would finally be called (A089, in case you're curious), we witnessed a dozen tiny dramas in the recently renovated Manhattan wedding bureau. A Gotham deco building on Worth Street, the new bureau is much prettier than a municipal building ought to be. It even includes a florist and a professionally lit City Hall backdrop for photo ops.

It's unconventional, but for couples with infinite passion and limited budget, the destination wedding - or, even cheaper, elopement - is attractive. Cities such as New York and New Orleans are trying to lure brides and grooms (and the tourism business they bring) by providing wedding services and tourism promotions.

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People-watching at the New York bureau was almost worth the $35 licence fee - a young man killing time with a "Do You Know Your Bride?" joke shop booklet, a bride with a birdcage hairdo and a hungry, unself-conscious groom chewing on a mustard-slathered soft pretzel (that would be me). Eventually, a bald, Shrek-like man materialized to console and unjilt his Slavic princess, providing, if not a fairy-tale wedding, then at least the possibility of a happily ever after.

This facility reopened earlier this year after a $14-million renovation - a move that reinforces the growing popularity of destination weddings. A recent survey in Destination Weddings & Honeymoons magazine predicts that "away" weddings will be an $18-billion business this year, up from $3.4-billion in 2001.

And while wedding packages at Caribbean and Mexican resorts account for about 70 per cent of the business, cities are competing against the resorts and that marriage capital, Las Vegas. (New York issued almost 70,000 licences last year, closing in on Las Vegas's 95,000.)

In order to make the big day as big easy as possible, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau now offers free assistance with wedding planning. Last year, tourism sales manager Leslie Straughan helped hundreds of visiting couples secure venues and hotel space; Straughan says she has seen a "phenomenal" increase recently in destination weddings. Couples who use the service receive New Orleans save-the-date postcards and a pair of Mardi Gras-style necklaces - with a little plastic bride and groom as beads.

The appeal is partly financial: Travel costs help to keep guest lists small, and combining wedding and honeymoon in one trip is an obvious money-saver. But the freedom to create a bespoke experience also allows one to buck expectations and help avoid the tricks and traps of the wedding-industrial complex. "New York has all ends of the spectrum," says Bebhinn Gallen, director of weddings and special events at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Battery Park. "You can pick up a dress at J. Crew or go to Vera Wang."

That idea is particularly relevant during this recession. In the past year, Gallen has noticed a trend toward smaller weddings and shorter lead times, while vendors are more willing to negotiate on price. Even the ritzy Ritz-Carlton is offering couples married at the bureau a $2,009 reception or a $325 wedding night package.

San Francisco, meanwhile, has its own niche: It became a hot spot for weddings in 2004, when the city began issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples, and continues to court them. The tourist bureau advertises how to get married there and rainbow-friendly hotels, clubs and restaurants.

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Both of those cities are building on reputations as romantic places, as is New York. Persuading couples to seal the deal in Manhattan is the next step. The new bureau includes two ceremony rooms, complete with iPod docks that allow you to play the love songs of your choice. The two-minute ceremony costs $25. However, once you have a marriage licence, you can tie the knot anywhere in New York state, which allows creative couples to take advantage of the scenery and skyline.

Michelle Smith, a New York-based officiant, performs dozens of weddings a year. She has married couples in Central Park and on the Brooklyn Bridge, and in early May of this year, she told me that I could kiss the bride as we stood on the steps on the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.

For my wife and me, a modest ceremony was an attractive idea, but New York also offered location-specific amenities (vegan cupcakes, top-notch restaurants, Prohibition-style cocktail bars) and incredible wedding photo backdrops (Bryant Park, the cobblestone streets of the Meatpacking District). As a bonus, we were treated like celebrities as we walked around Rockefeller Center, while tourists gawked and offered congratulations. It was an unforgettable urban fairy tale brought to life - even the weather co-operated.

A final highlight: a celebrity endorsement from Melora Hardin, who nodded and smiled at us and said "cute couple" as we waited to flag a cab. Of course, since Hardin is best known for playing romantic psychopath Jan Levinson on The Office, it might not have been the ideal seal of approval. But a great big-city moment regardless.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Pack your bags

Paperwork For a marriage licence in New York, visit www.cityclerk. Other states vary; see

Central Park ceremony In most areas of Central Park, weddings of 20 people or fewer require no permit; for larger events, a permit is $25. Visit

Where to stay Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park 2 West St.; (212) 344-0800; Minutes from the new marriage bureau, with a wedding concierge on staff.

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