War’s Tourism Impact Minimal

Posted March 28, 2003 at 3:09pm

Local businesses and tourist attractions are reporting only a slight decline in visitors in recent weeks, despite the ongoing war in Iraq and the elevated federal terror alert level.

Tourism officials and museum and business operators attribute the steady number of visitors to the warming spring weather, as well as to large-scale events, such as the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the recent World Figure Skating Championships and the opening of the new D.C. Convention Center.

Despite the closure of several popular tourist draws — the White House, FBI headquarters and Federal Bureau of Printing and Engraving are closed indefinitely — most attractions are keeping their doors open as the peak tourism season begins.

The Folger Shakespeare Library, currently showing a major exhibit on Elizabeth I, has witnessed a steady stream of visitors, said spokeswoman Garland Scott. However, the Folger Theatre, which often hosts school groups, reported cancellations from at least four high schools in the past two weeks because of concerns over the war and the Homeland Security Department’s decision to raise the terror alert to orange, the second highest level.

The Smithsonian Institution reported attendance figures at 2.2 million for the first two months of the year, up from 2 million at the same time last year. The draw during the first weekend of the war, however, was significantly lower. During the same weekend in 2002, the institution received 261,600 visitors. This year that figure dropped by nearly 50,000.

At the Navy Museum, inside the Washington Navy Yard at 11th and O streets Southeast, about 20 percent to 25 percent of scheduled tour groups have canceled reservations in recent weeks.

Sheila Brennan, the museum’s director of education and public programs, said about half of those cancellations, which include many school groups, have been rescheduled to the early summer months.

“There’s a hope there that things will get better,” Brennan said. Most of the cancellations appear to be related to concerns stemming from the war, rather than the terror alert.

On Capitol Hill, the Library of Congress, which typically draws 1.2 million visitors a year, has not seen a drop in attendance.

“Where we have had some cancellations it has been local — Maryland and Virginia schools,” said Teresa Sierra, the Library’s visitor services officer.

And while unscheduled tours of the Capitol were suspended indefinitely March 21, staff-led tours have not been affected, said Sharon Nevitt, acting director of the Capitol Guide Service. House and Senate offices host about 1,000 and 800 staff-led tours each day, respectively.

However, the suspension has hurt the U.S. Capitol Historical Society’s newly relocated kiosk in the Capitol Crypt, where sales have been cut in half in the past week, according to Diana Wailes, director of retail sales.

“The new location was doing quite well,” Wailes said. The kiosk has dropped its Saturday hours until unscheduled tours resume.

Hometown Customers

While officials at several museums are optimistic about their attendance numbers, some District-based tour operators suggested that in light of security concerns, the most reliable customer is likely to be the hometown crowd.

At the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition, staff members are looking to local residents to fill the tour season, which begins in April. Coalition Executive Director Kathryn Smith said that residents of metropolitan Washington comprise up to two-thirds of its tour-goers — a number she expects to increase if the security situation remains tenuous. Accordingly, Smith said the coalition will emphasize the importance of attracting local visitors in the coming weeks.

Still, many larger tour groups, often comprising school-aged children, continue to be a mainstay of the District’s tourism industry.

Worldstrides, a Charlottesville, Va.-based tour operator, expects to bring 85,000 to 90,000 students to the Washington area this year, according to Lisa Cassidy, director of customer development for the company.

In recent weeks, 28 groups have canceled trips and 60 others have postponed, Cassidy said. However, she added, those trips account for less than 2 percent of the company’s business, which schedules tours for 2,700 groups annually.

“We really feel as though business as usual is happening,” Cassidy said.

In fact, she said rumors about closings are the biggest obstacle for the business — not increased security in many facilities.

At the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, operators of the group’s tourism hotline face similar challenges, said Sue Porter, director of tourism and visitor services.

“We advise [callers] on the fact that there is still lots to see,” she said.

The Good and the Bad

While the outlook may not be universally rosy, many local restaurants and hotels are reporting steady business.

According to the Washington D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp., hotel occupancy in the District reached 73.1 percent for the week of March 16-22, comparable to a national average of 61.8 percent. During the same period in 2002, District hotels reported occupancy rates in the high 70s.

In the neighborhood surrounding the Capitol, a slight disparity exists in the amount of foot traffic local businesses are receiving.

Business is booming for those within a few blocks from the Capitol. Union Station — which attracts about 70,000 people daily — has reported no noticeable drop in the level of business in recent weeks, said General Manager Joan Malkowski. At the trendy Capitol Hill eatery Bistro bis, General Manager Ralph Johnson said dining numbers have remained stable, if not better.

“We are in a fortunate circumstance [located inside] a very busy hotel, and we are very popular with the news media who are working 24 hours a day,” he said, noting that the demand for takeout had also increased because of round-the-clock coverage of the war.

At the nearby La Colline, part-owner Paul Zucconi told a similar tale, though he said he had noticed a slight decrease in the number of attendees at special functions held at the restaurant. “I have had a few functions decrease in size because of people not traveling, but that would be the only noticeable effect,” he said.

But for some businesses along Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, it’s a struggle to even attract regular customers.

“Everything is slower,” said Patty Amiri, manager of Bread and Chocolate at 660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. “Most people want to stay at home and not go out.”

Amiri said sales at the restaurant have been down, as only regular customers, rather than tourists, frequent the shop.

Alvin Ross, owner of Mr. Henry’s, 601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, had a more concise view of the current state of business: “It stinks!”

Ross attributes the drop in sales to the current war, suggesting people are more subdued than in peace time.

“No matter what your opinion is about the war, there isn’t that, ‘Hey, it’s spring, let’s go out’ mindset right now,” he said.

In somewhat of a twist, though, shops and restaurants in close proximity to the Capitol are seeing a spike in sales as a result of recent anti-war protests.

Several weekends ago, lines at Firehook Bakery, 215 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, extended out the door for more than five hours as protesters swarmed the streets.

“I’ve never seen as many people in here as that day,” said manager Chris Martyn.

At the Capitol Lounge, 231 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, regulars are still coming to eat and drink, said manager Joe Lyon, but protesters are also bringing in business.

“When there’s a crowd out there, we get a crowd in here,” he said.