D.C. Officials Expect Tourism to Rebound

Numbers Already Up at Capitol, Smithsonian

Posted April 26, 2004 at 11:32am

While some Washington, D.C., residents eagerly await swarms of 17-year cicadas to emerge this spring, local officials are hoping for a return of a different kind: tourists.

While tourism in the nation’s capital has dwindled in recent years — mostly the result of fallout from the 2001 terrorist attacks as well as the anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill that same year — early statistics suggest the area could receive a level of visitors not seen in nearly three years.

“We are looking at this summer to have levels that are about the same if not higher than pre-9/11,” said Brian Boyer, spokesman for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Among the major factors contributing to the expected bump in visitors are the scheduled unveiling of the World War II memorial on the Mall next month followed in September by the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Additionally, unlike the start of the 2003 tourist season — the season is typically marked between mid-March and the Easter weekend — tourism officials don’t have to contend with an elevated federal terror alert level, which had prompted the cancellation of some school related tours and the closure of a handful of popular tourist destinations.

“We have maintained all along that Washington, D.C., is as safe as anywhere in the country, if not safer … D.C. has been open for business and continues to be open for business,” Boyer said.

Crowds on Capitol Hill

On Capitol Hill, nearly 6,000 visitors flocked through the Capitol building during the few weeks of April, an increase of 25 percent over the same period last year.

During these same weeks in 2003, however, Congressional leadership suspended unscheduled or walk-up tours of the Capitol, noting security-related concerns. At the time, between March 21 and April 23, 2003, staff-led and pre-arranged group tours were not affected.

Additionally, Capitol Guide Service Director Tom Stevens is careful to note that early numbers aren’t necessarily an indication of crowds to come.

“It’s difficult until you take the whole season as a package and put it together,” Stevens said. “With the cherry blossoms and Easter and spring break all rolled into one, it’s hard to really put your finger on what it might be attributed to one year over the next.”

In a typical year, Stevens noted, from 2 million to 3 million visitors are expected to tour the Capitol, although the number of would-be tourists turned away for lack of space is likely higher.

“We run the building at 100 percent capacity, so it’s hard to use head counts as an indicator as to what the demand actually is,” Stevens said. With the scheduled completion of the Capitol Visitor Center in 2006, Stevens adds, the Guide Service should be able to accommodate significantly more visitors.

More on the Mall

The Smithsonian Institution — which operates the National Zoo as well as museums on the Mall and is easily the most popular of Washington attractions — recorded 355,000 visitors during a mid-April weekend, the middle of a three-week period officials consider the start of the tourist season.

The same period in 2003, April 9-11, drew 266,000 visitors, according to Linda St. Thomas, the Smithsonian’s director of media relations.

“Judging by what we’ve seen so far, our business on the Mall — spending in the shops and the restaurants — was up 27 percent from last year,” St. Thomas added.

The museums actually experienced a decline in visitors during the first three months of 2004, down to 3.2. million from 4.2 million over the same period last year, but St. Thomas suggested that factors such as winter weather and storms can deter visitors or led to the cancelation of school-related events during these months.

Though hesitant to predict how many visitors are expected in coming months, St. Thomas acknowledged that the World War II memorial is likely to draw additional tourists.

In conjunction with the memorial’s dedication ceremony, planned for Memorial Day weekend, the Smithsonian will host a four-day event on the Mall, “Tribute to a Generation: National World War II Reunion.”

The Sept. 21 grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, located on the Mall’s eastern end, is similarly planned as an extensive event, featuring activities throughout the week of the unveiling.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Navy Museum is also expecting a boost during the Memorial Day weekend, as veterans and their families are expected to flock to the area to view the dedication ceremony.

So far in April, the Navy Museum, located inside the Washington Navy Yard at 11th and O streets Southeast, has received about 20 tour requests each day, noted Sheila Brennan, the museum’s director of education and public programs.

Museum officials are hopeful additional weekend hours and more tour groups will help to revive tourism at the Naval Historical Center, which hosted up to 350,000 visitors annually prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

During the current month the museum has scheduled 195 tour groups, compared to 220 for all of April 2003. Similarly, May reservations show 210 tour groups thus far, compared with 225 for the same month in 2003.

“We expect to get many more requests for both months, because we receive many tour requests a few days in advance of visits,” Brennan stated in an e-mail.

Into the Neighborhoods

Even as events like the memorial dedication are sure to draw tourists from across the nation, many local tour operators will continue to depend on District residents as their primary visitors.

“The attractions that are located off the Mall really rely on local residents, especially for repeat visitations,” noted Laura Brower, director of communications for Cultural Tourism D.C., a nonprofit coalition of 130 arts, heritage, cultural and community organizations.

The coalition tourism group focuses its efforts, in part, on bringing residents from the Washington metropolitan area into neighborhoods across the District, Brower explained.

“What we’re trying to do is make Washington’s local history accessible to people in new ways,” Brower said. The group offers walking tours and has also created self-guided tours on “heritage trails” — routes marked with illustrated signs — in neighborhoods including Capitol Hill.

“When tourists come to the city, they’re coming to the city, they’re coming to explore. They’re on a mission to have fun. But for those of us who live in the city … it’s like, ‘Oh, I can always put this off to next weekend or next summer,’” Brower said. “Encouraging people to make that step and to have a sense of urgency … that’s an opportunity for us.”