D.C.'s mayor declares everyone is welcome

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WASHINGTON -- This city wants it known that it loves tourists and wants more of them to visit.

Whether they are business travelers, individual visitors, tour groups or students on class trips, Mayor Anthony Williams declared they all are welcome in Washington.

And that even goes for groups who occasionally descend upon the city to protest in favor of or against certain causes and issues such as the war in Iraq or the upcoming meetings of the International Monetary Fund.

Sure, they may disrupt traffic and they may force certain sections of the city to be cornered off, but Williams, speaking during a forum on the "State of Tourism in the District," said that they nevertheless are visitors too.

"They are not like we were, protesting [as college students] and sleeping in tents," he said. "They stay in our hotels, go to our restaurants."

Overall, Washington has seen spikes in tourism with the help of recent events such as the World Figure Skating championships and the city's annual Cherry Blossom festival. Hotel occupancy levels in March were in the mid 70s, above the national average.

Still, the city and tourism officials that gathered for the forum April 11 conceded Washington's welcome mat remains somewhat obscured by the lingering effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the anthrax scare and now a rainbow of color-coded security alerts that have caused some travelers to think twice before visiting the city.

While few actual statistics were shared, there was a general agreement that, anecdotally at least, tourism to the city, while holding its own, could be much better. That seemed to be particularly true with regard to one of Washington's most vital tourism groups: student travelers.

Student travel to Washington dropped off dramatically after September 11 followed by the anthrax scare that forced the temporary shutdown of Congress. Then, just as the student market began to show slight signs of recovering, the city was thrown into a panic when it became the hunting ground for a shadow sniper who killed several people over last fall. (Two people since have been arrested and accused of the crimes).

School districts around the country postponed student trips to Washington. At one point, school authorities in suburban areas adjacent Washington also prohibited class trips into the city.

Consequently, Washington's tourism industry has found itself at the mercy of events out of its control.

But in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Wash.) -- who along with the mayor was part of a panel that included representatives from the National Tour Association, the American Bus Association and the Student Youth Travel Association -- said it doesn't have to be that way.

"We have to be far more proactive and build into the way we do business that emergency are going to come, that alerts are going to come and wars are going to come," she said.

Norton proposed city and tourism leaders form a task force to develop strategies that would allow Washington to market tourism in the face of certain events.

Norton said gone are the days when Washington could simply expect a certain number of visitors a year.

She said as the drop in student travel suggests, visitors will go elsewhere if they are uncertain about visiting Washington.

Norton challenged tourism officials to become more involved in discourse determining certain security procedures that have resulted in blocked streets and other measures that hinder the free flow of motorcoaches around the city.

NTA president Hank Phillips said that was one of the reasons why his association is lobbying to create a tourism advisory office with the Homeland Security department to assure that "along with effective security, the interest of the traveler is heard."

Noting the growing number of barricades that have been erected, for instance, on the streets around Capitol Hill and elsewhere, Mayor Williams said the city needs to find a way to make them appear less foreboding.

Still, the city holds significant appeal to visitors.

For instance, student groups surveyed by the Student Youth Travel Association show the majority intended to proceed with their school trips to Washington this summer.

"Washington is always one of the top destinations for motorcoach travel," added Peter Pantuso, president and CEO for the American Bus Association. "Every year when we survey our members, Washington is always in the top one or two of all the cities. Washington is a lifeblood to the motorcoach industry."

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