Washington-area tourism in slumps

Some criticize D.C. for not doing enough to woo visitors back

November 23, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - These days, visitors to Capitol Hill may see more evidence of terrorism than tourism: Lunch at the congressional hangout The Monocle requires walking through a police checkpoint, placed there to protect nearby House offices. A trip to the Senate side offers a view of yellow DO NOT CROSS tape encircling the anthrax-contaminated Hart building. Visitors can snap pictures of National Guard troops, whose semiautomatic pistols are meant to scare truck bombers from the Capitol dome. Sightseers can approach the Capitol steps, but public tours inside are still canceled.

If that's not daunting enough, the White House, the FBI and the U.S. Mint also are closed to tourists. Inquiring visitors are turned away by police.

Even as tourism here attempts a revival after Sept. 11 - museums are opening new exhibits, hotels are offering cheap rates, the city is promoting itself in an ad campaign - the industry is still mired in a slump. Since the attacks and the anthrax scare, the association of Washington with terrorism threatens to overshadow its identity as a tourist destination - a problem that has seeped into the tourist trade in Maryland and Virginia.

"This perception that Washington is a less safe place to go than other places means not only will the city lose out, but the entire area will lose out as people get used to visiting other cities altogether," said Mary Rudolph of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "This armed-camp image of Washington is going to hurt tourism beyond the city itself."

One of the biggest groups of tourists staying away are students, who have traditionally made Washington the No. 1 destination for school groups.

This time of year, tour operator Barbara Womack usually is booking hundreds of students on her popular spring tour: a visit to Congress, a stop by the monuments and a day at Camden Yards. But so far she has found no takers. On top of that, all 28 school groups with reservations to visit the city this fall have put off their trips because of terrorism fears.

Womack is trying to entice new business by offering low-cost terrorism insurance, so school groups can get their money back in case of a disaster.

"But it just seems like no matter what we do, we go one step forward and three steps back," said Womack, who has lost $200,000 in profits at Thrifty Tours, which her mother started in Northern Virginia 54 years ago. Recently, she cut staff hours because the phones weren't ringing.

The problem for the capital area is largely rooted in imagery: Every time Attorney General John Ashcroft gets on television warning of a terrorism threat, the backdrop is Washington. The recent White House decision to bar holiday tours and the move to limit access to the lighting of the National Christmas tree only added to the public-relations trouble.

"We fully realize that public safety must be first and foremost in everybody's minds, but we want to make sure the federal government doesn't create concerns that are unnecessary," said Bill Hanbury, president of the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp., who believes the government's anti-terror strategy contributes to the paranoia. "We want our federal officials to be calculated in what they say and ... do."

The city was experiencing an economic downturn before Sept. 11. Now, every new scare heightens the tension - the American Airlines crash in Queens last week, though not viewed as an act of terrorism, sent new tremors through the tourism industry.

Some Maryland officials say they are not worried about losing visitors, arguing that the state lures its own tourists unrelated to the capital.

"We're definitely hurt by Sept. 11, but I think we saw the worst of it," said Liz Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. Still, she added, "Some pockets were harder hit than others - Montgomery and Prince George's County definitely took some hits."

The numbers are sobering. In Washington, even as tourism officials see hope in rising hotel occupancy rates, they estimate the tourism troubles are costing the city $10 million a day. District officials project the industry's problems will cost the region 24,000 jobs by the end of the year. The city anticipates losing about $700 million in local tax revenues this year.

The pain extends to Maryland: State tax revenues from car rentals and hotel rooms were down more than 10 percent September compared with the same month the previous year, according to most recent state figures. Among the 2,700 Marylanders working in the district's hospitality industry, more than half have been laid off, according to the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

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