- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Washington may be an expensive place to visit, according to a new study, but the tourists unloading from the packs of school buses and family minivans in town during the city’s busiest tourism month say the city’s free attractions help bring the cost down compared with other tourist destinations.

The Myherbergs, a family of four visiting the District this week from Tempe, Ariz., took advantage of a free tour of the White House and visits to the museums on the National Mall.

“I think D.C. is one of the least expensive vacations you can go on as a family,” Erik Myherberg, 40, said as he and his family roamed the Mall yesterday. “Once you get to D.C., everything is free.”

Other visitors find staying in the suburbs is cheaper than the District.

“D.C. was too expensive so we had to go to Virginia,” said Joe Kaerney, 44, a computer programmer from New Jersey. “It’s half the price.”

Mr. Kaerney and his family chose to stay at a hotel in Rosslyn and take the Metro to and from the District.

Still others have resorted to staying even farther outside of Washington.

“We’ve been doing day trips,” said Pat Bennison, 46. He and his family opted to stay with relatives near Baltimore and drive to Greenbelt and ride the Metro into the city.

This month is shaping up to be one of the busiest for tourism in the District. During the week of April 2, the last week of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, hotel occupancy rose to 89.4 percent. Last week, it was 74 percent in the District, compared with 61 percent across the country, according to the Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp. (WCTC).

April was the most popular month for tourists last year. Hotel occupancy was at 86.7 percent here compared with 67.9 percent nationwide.

But that strong demand — over the year, District hotel occupancy rose 1.1 percent to 71.4 percent — has sent rates up.

“Here in Washington and across the country, hotel rates have been increasing,” said Victoria Isley, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the WCTC. “It’s a supply and demand issue. … Washington is a very popular destination and we’re seeing growth from business travel, leisure travel and a very healthy convention business.”

District hotel costs rose nearly 11 percent last year, according to a study by Smith Travel Research, a Hendersonville, Tenn., hotel industry research company. The group puts the average cost of a hotel night at $179 in the District and $131 in the Washington area.

But AAA, an auto club and travel agency, released a study this week pegging the District’s average cost of lodging at $358.05 per day, ranking it the second most expensive tourist destination when compared with states. Hawaii came in first at $402.71 and Nevada was third at $199.48.

“You’re standing on hallowed ground here,” said John Townsend, an AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman when asked about the hotel figures. “Sometimes hallowed ground is very expensive ground.”

The WCTC disputed the numbers, saying it’s inaccurate to compare the District with states.

“If you’re looking at major metropolitan areas or cities, there might be some comparisons,” Ms. Isley said. “This is just comparing apples and an orange.”

While state averages include rural areas, the District’s ranking is just the city — a major metropolitan area, where rates are typically higher than those in suburbs and rural areas.

“Everybody knows staying in New York is more expensive,” Mr. Townsend said, acknowledging that New York state’s No. 5 ranking doesn’t match where the city of New York would rank. “We’re not trying to kill tourism in the District. We’re just saying this is what it costs … with all the amenities and the historical value, nothing beats coming to the nation’s capital.”

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