Long after attacks, schools avoiding D.C.

Lingering fears keep class field trips scarce

April 29, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Every spring the Patriots - the John Barclay Elementary School Patriots from Warrington, Pa. - arrived in the nation's capital by the busload for their class trip.

But not this year. Instead of visiting the seat of the nation's democracy, the school is sending its sixth-graders to a sports club 15 minutes away, trading the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian Institution for attractions such as "Cheertastics" and "Kamikaze Boxing."

"Frankly, I think it's a good idea," said Cheryl Anderson, whose son attends Barclay. "With the world situation as it is, people decided it would be safer for the kids to stay closer to home."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions of about tourism in Washington incorrectly identified Hannah Byron's position. She is director of the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. The Sun regrets the error.

Like some other school districts around the country, the one in Bucks County, the largest suburban school district in Pennsylvania, continues to ban all air travel and class trips to major cities - including Philadelphia, only an hour away - to allay the concerns of parents and school administrators in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes.

And even as other schools cautiously return to the group-tour circuit, the city that was once their No. 1 destination, Washington, remains for many a tourism pariah. Not even in New York, where the devastation at the World Trade Center made the Pentagon attack a footnote, have school tours diminished as they have in Washington, said tourism officials, who say the capital has lost more student visitors than any other city.

"If there's another terrorist strike, a lot of parents worry that Washington will be the primary target," said Jim Santini, a lobbyist for the National Tour Association. "They want their kids to just stay away."

One city benefiting from Washington's pains is Baltimore, which tour operators say is positioning itself as an easy alternative for schools within a day's drive of the capital. Baltimore's tourism bureau mailed promotional brochures around the region after Sept. 11 to drum up business.

"The numbers are up - in some cases they have exceeded what they were this time last year," Hannah Byron, head of the city's tourism development office, said of this spring's student travel. "We wanted to give teachers new ideas about places they didn't think to visit before."

With Washington off limits to many schools - particularly after the anthrax attacks and subsequent terror warnings from the capital - historic sites such as Williamsburg, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa., are luring students instead.

But some schools are giving up on educational trips altogether. Tour operators report increased visits to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where the closest youngsters get to current history is a George W. Bush robot at the Hall of Presidents.

After national, star-studded promotions, New York has rebounded with schools in a way that Washington hasn't, tourism officials say. Buses of students are returning to old Manhattan attractions as well as to new ones, including the site where the World Trade Center towers fell, a destination teachers request so that they can discuss the attacks in a more visceral way.

A sense of pride

Not all students are avoiding Washington, and tour operators hope that by next year local business will have fully recovered. Last week, 33 fifth-graders from Bridgeport, W.Va., filed into the National Air and Space Museum after their teachers successfully petitioned county officials for permission to leave city limits.

"People said we should go to Disney World because it's safer, but that made no sense to me - this experience can't be duplicated anywhere," said Dorothy Cooper, a mother in a stars-and-stripes windbreaker, as she led her daughter past a case of astronaut suits. "I wanted to come out of national pride."

For other visitors, memories of Sept. 11 make Washington a place of morbid intrigue. Last week, pupils from Beach Middle School, near Ann Arbor, Mich., planned to drive by the side of the Pentagon that was damaged in the attacks.

"Now the kids can actually say they've seen where Sept. 11 happened," said Sandy Wilson, a chaperone. "That will be a highlight of the trip."

But tourism officials say many of the 1 million students who would have visited here in a normal year are staying away. "You see it inside the cafeterias," said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas, who expects crowds to be about 20 percent smaller this month than at the same time last year. "We don't have those same numbers of teen-agers."

About 180 group-tour companies nationwide - many of which count on school trips to Washington for a significant portion of their business - have applied for disaster loans from the Small Business Administration. About half of those that applied have received $89,000 on average.

"There's a perception out there, unfortunately, that Washington is a poisoned destination," said Neil Amrine, president of the Guide Service of Washington, which provides narrators for group tours. Even after receiving a disaster loan, he said, he had to cut his six-person administrative staff in half.

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