Washington tourism on upswing

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

After several years of stagnant visitor growth brought on by a slew of negative factors -- ranging from terrorism concerns to a sniper incident to the soft economy -- Washington's tourism industry, thanks in large part to a strong leisure travel market, experienced 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., at a press conference here. But "we've begun to track on a positive trend."

Figures show some 16.4 million domestic visitors toured the city, up a solid 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 still below a 1998 highpoint, when 17.8 million visitors were welcomed by the city, it was far better than 2000, when 15.7 million visited Washington, the lowest amount during the past seven years. International arrivals are still off by 16%.

While Washington is seeing slight increases in business markets, it is the leisure market that is leading the rebound in visitor 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.

According to the city's tourism figures, 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 "a full 13% of our leisure visitors that 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 also was 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, which had been 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. That compares to a $147.26 average room rate in 2003 when occupancy levels hit 69%. In 2002, the average rate was $144.07 against a 67.2% occupancy level.

Social/family events, historical places/museums, shopping, and sightseeing were the top reasons for visiting Washington.

Looking to the remainder of 2004 and beyond, tourism official are expecting a solid increase in visitor arrivals, particularly in leisure visits, partly due to the improving economy, but also due to visitor interest in the newly opened World War II Memorial and the debut of several new attractions such as the National Museum of the American Indian (opening in September), the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (opening in 2005), the National Portrait Gallery (opening in 2006), and the Newseum (also opening in 2006).

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

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