Capital gains: D.C. tourism showing signs of recovery

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WASHINGTON -- The tourism rebound has begun in the nation's capital.

After several years of stagnant visitor growth brought on by a slew of factors, including terrorism concerns, a series of sniper shootings and a soft economy, Washington logged significant increases in visitor arrivals and hotel stays in 2003, setting the stage for what promises to be a solid 2004 for the city.

"The past 18 months have been a challenge," said William Hanbury, president and CEO of the Washington, DC Convention & Tourism Corp. But "we've begun to track on a positive trend."

Figures show the city hosted some 16.4 million domestic visitors in 2003, up 3.2% from the previous year. Adding international visitors, a total of 17.2 million people visited Washington in 2003, up 1.7% from the previous year's 16.9 million.

Although 2003 was below the 1998 high point of 17.8 million domestic visitors and 19.2 million total, it was far better than 2000, when the number of domestic arrivals sunk to 15.7 million and the total came to 17.2 million.

Washington is seeing slight increases in business travel, but it is the leisure market that is leading the rebound in arrivals.

In 2003, the city hosted 3.8% more leisure visitors than it did in 2002, and, as a result, hotels saw a 2.8% increase in leisure stays.

Leisure travel accounts for 66% of Washington's overall visitor market. Business/convention travel accounts for 29% and business/pleasure travel fills in the remaining 5%.

Most visitors to Washington hailed from New York; Philadelphia; Norfolk, Va.; Baltimore; and Boston, with the Big Apple accounting for "13% of our leisure visitors who stay in hotels," Hanbury said.

The average length of stay was 3.6 nights, and 66% of all trips to Washington included at least one overnight stay.

Spending by visitors was also up in 2003, with travelers spending $455 per trip, an increase of 2.7% from the previous year. By comparison, business travelers spent $687.

Room rates, flat for several years, are trending upward.

So far in 2004, hotel occupancy is averaging 72.4%, with the average room rate at $152.29, a gain of about $5 over 2003, when occupancy levels hit 69%. In 2002, the average rate was $144.07 against a 67.2% occupancy rate.

Looking ahead, tourism official are expecting solid increases, particularly in leisure visits, partly as a result of the improving economy but also due to visitor interest in such attractions as the newly opened World War II Memorial on the National Mall.

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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