- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2008

The number of visitors to Washington rose in 2007 and is holding steady this year, though tourism officials are bracing for a decline in 2009 because of the weakening U.S. economy, according to statistics released Wednesday.

Washington counted 16.2 million visitors in 2007 - a 7 percent increase from the previous year, according to tourism officials. Visitor spending increased 6 percent to $5.5 billion in 2007. The number of international visitors to the city rose 13 percent, a result in part of the cheap dollar.

Still, tourism economist Ken McGill said household income is beginning to decline in cities along the East Coast that help feed D.C. tourism.

“Travel decisions are primarily driven by economics,” Mr. McGill said.

When money is tight, the competition among destination cities like Orlando, Fla., New York and Washington will increase, so the capital may have to spend more money on promotions to maintain its rank as the eighth-most visited U.S. destination, he said.

Without an increase in spending on advertising, Mr. McGill predicted overall visitation would decline slightly to 16 million in 2008 and 15.7 million in 2009 before the economy starts to rebound.

William Hanbury, president and chief executive of the tourism bureau Destination D.C., said a steady increase in the number of international visitors in recent years could help offset a projected 4 percent decline in the number of leisure travelers and fewer conventions held in the city.

Washington tourism saw a sharp decline following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a loss of about 2 million visitors annually compared with figures from 2000. With steady increases in international travel, officials expect the number of foreign visitors will rebound to pre-Sept. 11 levels by 2011.

Mr. Hanbury predicted the reopening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the opening of the new Capitol Visitor Center later this year would make Washington a more exciting place to visit.

International visitors make up only about 8 percent of visitors to Washington but account for more than a quarter of tourism spending, shelling out more than $1,000 per visitor on average, compared with about $276 per domestic visitor. Statistics from the tourism group do not project how a decline in visitors will affect overall tourism spending, though Mr. McGill said he’s confident spending by new international visitors will more than offset a downturn in domestic tourism spending.

He said Washington is in a better position than many other cities.

“I think our projections for actual spending will actually translate into overall growth,” he said.

So far in 2008, domestic flights to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport have declined 6 percent, while international arrivals have increased about 7 percent, according to the tourism bureau. Hotel occupancy rates have been buoyed by record highs in April and July from major events including Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, the Cherry Blossom Festival and large conventions.

Earlier in 2008, the city rebranded itself with a new marketing strategy inviting visitors to create their own “power trips” to Washington and emphasizing the city’s neighborhoods beyond the popular Mall.

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