D.C. tourism as usual, with tighter security Skittish visitors still go despite threat of terrorism

August 25, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Overheated families wilted in line at the Washington Monument, children refueled on astronaut snacks on the steps of the Air and Space Museum and the Tourmobile chugged along its usual route.

Despite the looks of it, this was no ordinary day at tourist central. Visitors were getting their bags searched and avoiding concrete barriers at the Washington Monument, while their cars were shooed away from the Jefferson Memorial. In museums on the Mall, they toured next to extra security guards. Outside the Pentagon, they were met with stern looks by Special Forces troops known by insiders as "ninjas."

Last week's counter-terrorist missile strikes have left some tourists wondering if they are vacationing in the bull's eye -- a city so full of symbolically powerful landmarks that it must be a natural target for terrorists.

Even so, tourism officials say throngs of visitors have not called off trips to the capital or changed their itineraries since last week's strikes. Indeed, the city remains a sea of postcards and flashbulbs, and merchants say they are as busy as usual for late August.

Still, some tourists are skittish as they take in the sights.

"My brother-in-law told me before I came, 'You never know when something could strike,' " said Bonita Wineglass, 33, a mother from Indianapolis who brought her four children to the Washington Monument yesterday. The landmark was open for visitors, despite the barricades at its base, but Wineglass was uneasy after hearing so many warnings.

One of the sternest cautions came from her ex-husband, an Army captain shot in the leg in Kuwait three months ago. "He knew we were coming," she said, "and he told me to be careful in Washington."

For tourists with active imaginations, the city seemed a little like the set of an adventure picture. Wineglass said she thought she was about to be attacked when what she described as an odd-looking tour bus sped by her near the White House. At the Washington Monument, Dave Pugliese was ready for big thrills when a black Suburban roared up the grassy ellipse toward the monument and G-men jumped out.

"It looked just like 'Clear and Present Danger,' " said Pugliese, 42, a visitor from Pittsburgh.

Said his brother, Paul: "You notice something is definitely wrong."

The National Park Service closed the parking lot by the Jefferson Memorial, and guards waved away cars that were idling outside government buildings for pick-ups and drop-offs. The subway system continues to run security announcements urging riders to report suspicious items and people.

Tours of the Pentagon resumed yesterday after being canceled last week in the wake of the missile strikes. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has double shifts of "ninjas" on duty, toting automatic weapons and patrolling for car bombs and suspicious visitors.

Many tourists refuse to be cowed.

"I talked to my daughter -- if she had said no, then we would not have come," said Ruth Brotman, a Baltimore grandmother who carried out a long-planned visit to Washington yesterday, her two grandchildren from New York in tow. "But she said, 'You have to live your lives.' "

At USA Host, which sponsors corporate tours in Washington, Dana Smith has seen no drop-off in client interest after last week's strikes and the fatal shootings at the Capitol in July.

"We don't see it's changed our business, which, frankly, I find surprising," said Smith, an accounts director at USA Host. "We're not going to bring it up and say, 'Are you OK with doing this tour?' But the truth is, Washington has the Secret Service, the FBI, the Capitol Police -- what other city in the world has all that protection?"

By most estimates, it has been a boom summer for Washington tourism. In June, Washington Dulles International Airport served nearly 1.47 million passengers, a 16.5 percent increase over last June.

In fact, the last time tourist industry officials can remember visitors staying home was during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

Many folks feel Washington is about as safe as it gets, home to every genus and species of security guard and police officer -- dozens of federal, regional and city forces.

Joe Parsons wandered down the Mall yesterday, feeling about as safe as he will for the near future as he awaits a move to Kinshasa this week. Parsons, 57, who will fly airplanes for a Belgian airline in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is nervous about being an American abroad -- not without reason.

He's heading to a country in the midst of civil war.

Pub Date: 8/25/98

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