District tourism recovers after attacks

Travel to the District is returning to pre-September 11 levels after an initial tourist drought cost the city millions of dollars a day. But experts are reporting an uneven recovery as many families, prompted by terrorist alerts, have stayed away from the city in large numbers.

Immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, closed attractions, tighter security and a dip in travel nationwide helped deliver an intense blow to D.C.’s tourism industry.

D.C. hotel occupancy numbers dropped more than 20 percent the week following the attacks, according to Washington Convention and Tourism Corporation statistics. By November 2001, the tourism industry, the largest revenue generator for the District, lost more than $10 million a day.

While security is still heightened and some government buildings, such as the FBI building, remain closed to the public, travel to D.C. has largely returned to normal levels.

Tourism officials said hotel occupancy rates for June and July 2003 ranged from 70 percent to 80 percent, which equals last year’s rate, and dips slightly below the percentages seen at this time in 2000.

“We’ve really come a long way,” said Washington Convention and Tourism spokeswoman Rebecca Pawlowski. “Our hotel occupancy rates aren’t quite what they were for 2000, but they’re definitely coming along.”

Although she declined to release specific figures, Lisa Stewart, a representative for Marriott and Renaissance Hotels in D.C., said bookings at her hotels began to pick up by November 2001.

Stewart said fallout from the attacks is not being felt anymore.

“Following 9/11, what we saw were about six to eight weeks when people weren’t traveling,” she said. “We were immediately affected, but by now business has been pretty steady. There’s not a huge impact anymore. People are still coming to D.C.”

While overall tourism figures have returned to 2000 levels, industry experts noted the rebound has been uneven, skewing toward businessmen, government lobbyists and high-end leisure travelers, as opposed to typical vacationers.

“Families and student groups (coming to Washington) still appear weak,” said Douglas Freckling, chair of the GW Department of Hospitality and Tourism Studies. “Every time there’s a new alert from the Department of Homeland Security or something like the sniper incident, people think D.C. is a dangerous place. The media is based here in Washington, so when these things are highlighted on the news it’s done in a personal way. It discourages families from coming here.”

Pawlowski said several new attractions have been added to D.C. to lure visitors. The City Museum of Washington D.C., which celebrates the District’s cultural history, recently opened its doors. The World War II memorial and the National Museum of the American Indian, both of which are being constructed on the National Mall, will be completed by May and September 2004, respectively.

The White House, one of the most popular tourist destinations in D.C., will reopen its doors to the public later this month but will require visitors get security clearance. In April, the public will be able to visit the Capitol building again.

District officials are also putting an emphasis on less popular attractions.

“We’re encouraging people to visit sites away from the National Mall,” Pawlowski said. “We’ve got a brand new convention center. Several boutique hotels have opened that are very unique for D.C. It runs contrary to the belief that D.C. is a stuffy government city.”

The convention center, which opened in March, has brought thousands of people to the city, Pawlowski said.

“We’re able to accommodate a lot of groups that we could not have accommodated before,” she added. “It puts us up there as one of the top destinations for conventions in the United States.”

Freckling said a variety of cultural attractions in the District make the long-term prospects for the local tourism industry appear healthy.

“There’s always going to be something going on that will fill hotels in this city,” he said. “No destination in the country has more cultural and heritage sites than we do. It’s not going to be a steady course, but overall, tourism will continue to grow in D.C.”

Julie Gordon contributed to this report

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