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
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."