- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

Lingering fears about the economy, terrorism, sniper attacks, war and even nasty weather will not keep Washington off this summer’s vacation plans, tourists say.

“It feels like the center of America here,” Faical Embarch of Morocco said while standing outside of the National Air and Space Museum. “There is a lot for Americans to be proud of here. I’m not scared at all. Terrorism can happen everywhere, in Morocco and in every country. So we cannot fear one place or another.”

That tourism in the Washington area remains down nearly two years after the September 11 attacks is no surprise. Since then, the U.S. economy has fallen into a recession, and the armed police surrounding national monuments have done little to encourage tourism.

Though the number of U.S. tourists to the District dropped by 3 percent last year, this year’s numbers show improvement.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority reported that Wednesday’s subway ridership of 726,789 was the third-highest in its 27-year history.

“It’s extraordinary to see a number that large without an event attached,” Metro General Manager Richard A. White said.

The agency’s two biggest days were March 10, 1995, when 804,146 persons used the Metro for the Million Man March and Jan. 20, 1993, when 811,257 used it to see President Clinton’s inauguration.

Wednesday also marked the fourth day in June that Metro had more than 700,000 riders. About 660,000 customers typically use the subway system on a weekday.

Hotel bookings have also increased. The occupancy rate from roughly February to April increased from 65 percent to 74 percent, according to the Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp. The rate was 81 percent last week — a 1 percent increase compared with the same time last year and a huge improvement from the 25 percent low seen after the September 11 attacks.

“Tourism has seemingly gone up,” said company Vice President Victoria Isley. “Anecdotally, we have heard of an [increase] in visitation, from seeing more groups and more people out on the Mall.”

Still, she acknowledged that spring is the height of the District’s tourist season and that the real test will come as the summer continues.

Many of the tourists seen around the National Mall this week were in town for the Smithsonian Institution’s 37th Annual Folklife Festival.

Vicki Moeser, a Smithsonian spokeswoman, said the 10-day event will attract about 1 million visitors.

“It’s a beautiful city, and it’d be a shame not to take advantage of it,” said Liz Stone of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. “I could stay home and say, ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ but that’s not my attitude.”

Museum spokesmen throughout the city said they are also seeing more tourists.

“The levels are back up to where they were,” said Arthur Berger of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “It’s nice to see the crowds.”

The International Spy Museum, which celebrates its first anniversary July 19, has also seen more visitors, said media relations manager Jennifer Saxon.

“We’re doing really, really well and are ahead of our projected attendance,” she said. “D.C. represents a pilgrimage since September 11. People feel they should go and see it, and there is a renewed sense of patriotism here.”

The Air and Space Museum, one of the country’s most popular attractions, is expected to see as many as 10 million visitors this year, said Walton Ferrell, a Smithsonian public affairs specialist.

“We’re doing very well, and our attendance is back on track,” he said. “Surveys show people will travel in spite of terrorism. People want to travel, and they are willing to do so regardless of what is on the evening news.”

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