Friday, March 6, 2009

Trying to capture the momentum of January’s historic inauguration, the District’s tourism bureau is creating an “Obama-inspired itinerary” to entice visitors who were not able to make it for the event.

With tourism plummeting in hot spots like Miami and Las Vegas, the District is looking to stave off a similar downturn by selling tour operators on the idea.

The tour will focus on several parts of the city that President Obama visited during his campaign and since his inauguration, including the Kennedy Center, the Capitol, the inaugural parade route and the White House.

Other stops highlight areas where Mr. Obama has dined in the city, running the gamut from unofficial D.C. landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street Northwest to Equinox, the upscale eatery near the White House where Mr. Obama took first lady Michelle Obama for her birthday.

While Destination DC does not conduct tours, the Obama-inspired itinerary “is designed to give people ideas for how they will spend their time in D.C. if they want to plan their visit the ‘Obama’ way,” said Carla Barry-Austin, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Tourism to the District is expected to have increased from 2007 to last year, though those numbers are not yet available. Destination DC is just hoping to stay even with last year’s numbers, something that may prove difficult, according to Victoria Isley, senior vice president at the bureau.

The competition among U.S. cities has gotten cutthroat as the number of travelers and the amount of disposable income has dwindled. The agency’s budget of $14 million leaves the city far behind the tourism marketing budgets of big cities like New York and Chicago. A large portion of that budget comes from a hotel tax that tourists pay every time they stay at a hotel in the city.

The ability to make a city seem unique should be the priority for cities vying to increase or simply maintain their market share of a rapidly shrinking pie, according to tourism experts.

“Every community and city needs to ask themselves what do we have that the customer can do that they can’t do closer to home,” said Roger Brooks, founder of Destination Development, a consulting company that helps cities and towns promote themselves as tourist destinations. “In these economic times, that´s the question to ask. Tell me what you have that nobody else has.”

For the District, that means showing off the capital as the seat of the highest political power in the land, highlighting the fact the District is not only where Mr. Obama works, it is also where he lives.

Additionally, Destination DC hopes to showcase the city’s free museums as a way to appeal to tourists who are tightening their budgets.

“Value is always an important message in travel as long as it is paralleled by experience,” Ms. Isley said.

In 2007, the year for which the most recent tourism data are available, the District hosted 16.2 million visitors including 15.0 million domestic visitors and 1.2 million international visitors.

Among the groups Destination DC is focusing on are visitors from Britain, who have taken a particular liking to Mr. Obama.

“The United Kingdom media has taken an amazing interest in the new Obama administration,” Ms. Isley said. “We received travel coverage of D.C. in every U.K. daily [newspaper] during the week of the inauguration. We are looking to leverage that interest.”

The District was the eighth-most-visited U.S. destination for international travelers in 2007, according to Destination DC.

“Anecdotally, we have had significant interest in people coming to stay on sofas,” said Brendan O’Grady, a spokesman for the British Embassy. British citizens are not required to apply for a visa to visit the United States, so there are no formal numbers on their visits to the District.

“There have been plenty of Brits finding reasons to visit friends in Washington, where they might not have visited a year ago,” Mr. O’Grady said.

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