- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

The Washington area posted a 3 percent drop in domestic visitors last year as school groups and other day-trippers continued to stay away from the region.

An estimated 17.6 million domestic visitors came to Washington in 2002 compared with 18.1 million in 2001, according to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA). In 1998, the area had more than 19.8 million domestic visitors.

There’s no question the travel and tourism industry — including airlines, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions — continues to feel the effects of global issues such as the sluggish economy, job insecurity, war and terrorism.

Washington is no exception.

“We’re one of the most vibrant economies in the world, but it makes no difference when we have to deal with the dramatic and global events that we’ve had to deal with,” said William A. Hanbury, president and chief executive of the Washington, DC Convention & Tourism Corp.

Last year wasn’t easy for Washington. Still reeling from the September 11 attacks and dealing with heightened terror alerts, the area was unnerved by the sniper attacks in October.

“The combination of the threat levels, anthrax and sniper attacks did not do us any favors,” Mr. Hanbury said.

Nationally, domestic travel climbed 0.3 percent in 2002 from the previous year, according to TIA. Domestic pleasure travel rose 1.9 percent, while domestic business travel fell 5.5 percent.

International travel continues to be the biggest challenge. About 41.9 million visitors came to the United States last year — a 7 percent drop from the previous year and a 12 percent drop from 2000.

Despite the decrease in overall domestic visitors, there wasn’t all bad news for Washington in 2002.

Last year the area had 14 million overnight visitors, a 6.8 percent increase from 2001, according to TIA.

“D.C. has been recovering more quickly than other places,” said Suzanne Cook, senior vice president of research and technology at TIA.

Mr. Hanbury said the increase in overnight visitors can be attributed to Washington’s attractions, including the patriotic symbols and historic sites.

“There is a wider range of things to do than ever before,” Mr. Hanbury said. “People are staying longer and spending more.”

Events such as Restaurant Week, which offers special menus at discounted prices, and new attractions including the International Spy Museum, which opened in July, have helped make Washington more attractive.

Visiting historic places and shopping were the two most popular activities in Washington in 2002, according to TIA.

Average household spending per trip increased 3 percent to $480 last year compared with $467 in 2001. Average length of stay increased to 2.8 nights, compared with 2.4 nights in 2001.

Travel officials remain optimistic.

Total U.S. domestic travel is expected to increase 1.9 percent this year and 3.2 percent in 2004. Despite the sluggish economy, consumer confidence is growing and travel intentions are strong, TIA said.

“We’re going to see increased visitation because there is a higher confidence level,” Mr. Hanbury said.

Miss Cook said momentum has been building for the summer travel season. “We’re seeing people bounce back,” she said. “Americans are returning to their more traditional patterns.”

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