No, Sequestration Did Not Destroy D.C. Tourism

Tourism is actually up, despite massive cuts.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Aug. 24, 2013, 2 a.m.

When Con­gress failed to stop the se­quester in the spring, Wash­ing­ton braced it­self for a ter­rible sum­mer.

The White House can­celed tours. The Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice cut back its staff on the Mall. The Na­tion­al Archives and the Na­tion­al Ar­bor­etum cut their hours. The Smith­so­ni­an closed rooms in its mu­seums.

Law­makers pre­dicted pub­lic out­cry and a dev­ast­at­ing blow to Wash­ing­ton’s sum­mer tour­ist sea­son.

And then … it didn’t hap­pen.

Des­pite all the dire warn­ings of dooms­day scen­ari­os, Wash­ing­ton is en­joy­ing a ban­ner year for tour­ism.

Vis­it­ors to the Dis­trict and its many mu­seums and monu­ments are up. Ac­cord­ing to Des­tin­a­tion DC, the tour­ism branch of the D.C. gov­ern­ment, hotel oc­cu­pancy for the first week of Au­gust was up 9.2 per­cent over last year. People are spend­ing more money on ho­tels, as well, with the daily rate for stays up 1.5 per­cent to $156.42 per night. The city is also host­ing more busi­ness meet­ings and people are stay­ing longer.

At the Smith­so­ni­an mu­seums, there have been slightly more vis­it­ors in the peri­od this year between Janu­ary and Ju­ly then there were the same time last year — 20.6 mil­lion vis­it­ors com­pared with 20.4 mil­lion.

So, why didn’t the doom and gloom come to pass?

Part of it has to do with how dif­fer­ent en­tit­ies dealt with the cut.

Take the Smith­so­ni­an. It had to cut $41 mil­lion from its budget this year. It was able to hide most of the cuts from the pub­lic by re­du­cing staff travel, activ­it­ies, train­ing, and hours, clos­ing only three small as­pects of its many mu­seums in Wash­ing­ton: one por­tion of the third floor of the Hirsh­horn Mu­seum, one room in the Castle that holds some ex­hib­its, and one room in the Na­tion­al Mu­seum of Afric­an Art.

“Our vis­it­ors wouldn’t can­cel a trip to Wash­ing­ton, of which Smith­so­ni­an is a big part, be­cause a part of one ex­hib­it they nev­er heard of was closed,” Smith­so­ni­an spokes­wo­man Linda St. Thomas said. “We did al­most everything through ad­min­is­trat­ive cuts that the pub­lic wouldn’t no­tice.”

Over at the White House, the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cided to can­cel tours be­cause of cuts to the Secret Ser­vice — a ne­ces­sary move, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials; a polit­ic­al move, ac­cord­ing to crit­ics. But only 3 per­cent of the 18 mil­lion people who vis­it Wash­ing­ton every year ac­tu­ally go the White House.

An­oth­er reas­on the cuts haven’t had as large of an im­pact has to do with the Dis­trict it­self. “People are still com­ing here be­cause there’s so much to see and oth­er places for them to spend money,” said Bar­bara Lang, pres­id­ent and CEO of the Dis­trict of Columbia Cham­ber of Com­merce. She op­er­ates a tour­ist cen­ter near Chin­atown, where she said she dir­ects people not only to the Mall, but also to sites else­where in the Dis­trict like the U Street and H Street neigh­bor­hoods, or spe­cif­ic places like the Spy Mu­seum or Ma­dame Tus­saud’s.

Over at the D.C. gov­ern­ment, of­fi­cials are at­tempt­ing to at­tract busi­nesses and or­gan­iz­a­tions to hold meet­ings and con­fer­ences. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment may be the largest em­ploy­er in the Dis­trict. But hos­pit­al­ity is second. “We do know that there is an ex­traordin­ary ef­fort on the part of the city to book smal­ler meet­ings in what would be con­sidered an off-peak time,” said Des­tin­a­tion DC spokes­wo­man Kate Gibbs. “This is a sea­son where usu­ally meet­ings are few and far between.”

And, of course, there’s the im­prov­ing — al­beit slowly — eco­nomy.

Vis­it­ors aren’t even men­tion­ing se­quest­ra­tion among their con­cerns for Wash­ing­ton, said Lang. She says the only se­quester-re­lated com­plaints she re­ceives are about long lines at the air­ports stem­ming from cuts at the Trans­port­a­tion Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

However, these of­fi­cials warn that while the sum­mer tour­ism sea­son has been strong, people should still be wor­ried about the dam­aging ef­fects se­quest­ra­tion might have in the long term. If Con­gress and the White House can’t agree on a budget in the fall, the cuts could con­tin­ue — and the Dis­trict may not be able to hide their ef­fects from the pub­lic much longer.

St. Thomas cau­tions that a full fisc­al year would have re­quired a $65 mil­lion cut for Smith­so­ni­an. “Ob­vi­ously, the high­er the cut, the more it is for us to not af­fect any­thing the pub­lic does,” she said. “We’re not go­ing to start char­ging ad­mis­sion or any­thing.”

As tour­ism sea­son nears its close in Wash­ing­ton, so be­gins the sea­son for busi­ness trav­el­ers. And the Dis­trict re­lies heav­ily on this com­merce. But if Con­gress can’t get past se­quest­ra­tion, or even heads to­ward a gov­ern­ment shut­down, that could ef­fect busi­ness travel. “If they’re not com­ing here to do the busi­ness of the gov­ern­ment, then that be­comes a prob­lem,” said Lang.

In any event, Lang said it’s too soon to cel­eb­rate.

“I’m not sure that the im­pact of what every­body was scared about se­quest­ra­tion has come to pass yet,” Lang said. “I think that it’s com­ing, but I don’t think it’s happened as fast as every­body had ori­gin­ally thought.”

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