No, Sequestration Did Not Destroy D.C. Tourism

Tourism is actually up, despite massive cuts.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
See more stories about...
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.”

MOST READ
What We're Following See More »
1.5 MILLION MORE TUNED IN FOR TRUMP
More People Watched Trump’s Acceptance Speech
14 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Hillary Clinton hopes that television ratings for the candidates' acceptance speeches at their respective conventions aren't foreshadowing of similar results at the polls in November. Preliminary results from the networks and cable channels show that 34.9 million people tuned in for Donald Trump's acceptance speech while 33.3 million watched Clinton accept the Democratic nomination. However, it is still possible that the numbers are closer than these ratings suggest: the numbers don't include ratings from PBS or CSPAN, which tend to attract more Democratic viewers.

Source:
×