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As summer comes to a close, Washington's tourism industry is looking back on a season that beat the expectations of many. When the heavy federal budget cuts known as the sequester went into effect last March, lawmakers warned the impact on D.C. tourism could be devastating: they said the cuts could cripple national institutions like the Smithsonian and the National Archives and deter tourists from visiting the nation's Capital.
As National Journal staff writer Matt Vasilogambros reports in a discussion with WAMU Morning Edition host Matt McCleskey, tourism in Washington didn't just hold steady, it actually increased, in both visitors and spending.
How did this summer's tourist season end up comparing to the negative predictions many lawmakers were making last spring?
"Right before the summer hit, the White House cancelled its tours, the Smithsonian had to close some of its doors, the National Archives and the National Arboretum had to lower its hours. And then after this, lawmakers said tourists are going to come here and see all these negative impacts, and they're going to be so outraged that they're going to tell lawmakers to fix the sequester. After all that, D.C. tourism is actually having a banner year, and it's the best they've seen in quite a while."
Why do you think that tourism actually increased this year?
"What happened was that a lot of these institutions like the Smithsonian hid their cuts in administration costs. So a lot of their staffers weren't allowed to travel as much, they didn't have as much staff training. The Smithsonian also closed a couple rooms and exhibits, but as a spokesman told me, it was a couple rooms and a couple of rooms that nobody had ever heard of. And so they tried to hide a lot of these cuts. That's what the Smithsonian did. And the White House closed its tours, but if you think about it, only 3 percent of people that visit D.C. every year actually go to the White House."
Is there a sense of how federal budget cuts could affect Washington s tourism industry in the future, if lawmakers leave the sequester cuts in place?
"The Smithsonian had to cut something like $40 million this summer. The reason why that happened is that this was only a partial year of the sequester. If it had been a full year, it would have been closer to $65 million. And so the higher the costs that you have to get out of your budget, the less likely you can actually hide it from the public. That's when you're going to start seeing many more exhibits closing in the Smithsonian, the National Park won't have as many people to clean up after events. There was even talk this summer about canceling certain concerts on the National Mall for July 4, and through private donations and costs cuts, they were able to keep those"
"But we still see the effects of sequester across the country. You'll never see a fly-over of jets over baseball games, and there are other cuts that folks are very aware of. But for now, D.C. tourism are very confident and they had a banner year despite the cuts."