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With many of Washington, D.C.’s most iconic sites shuttered by the partial federal government shutdown, tourism officials say that visitors are canceling trips and an extended impasse could have a negative impact on the city’s economy.
“It's affecting everyone and the decisions they make,” says Theresa Belpulsi, vice-president of tourism at Destination D.C., the city’s tourism and conventions agency.
She says the agency has been in touch with operators, and many have expressed concern over the closure of popular sites like the Smithsonian museums, the National Zoo and many of the city’s memorials and monuments.
D.C. played host to 18.9 million visitors in 2012, bringing $6.2 billion to the city’s economy. But with fewer places to visit, some groups are opting to cancel trips or reschedule them for later in the year.
One North Carolina-based tour bus operator told Destination D.C. that he was forced to cancel 12 planned tours involving 36 buses and 600 students; the total loss to him was $195,000 and $85,000 to area hotels.
Craig Smith, the CEO of the Martz Group, which runs Gray Line bus tours in Washington, says that while it’s too early to tell how big a financial hit he may take, he is preparing to limit bus service if the shutdown sees no hint of ending.
“We have to start looking at taking the supply down to the demand,” he says.
For the time being, his bus tours of Arlington National Cemetery—which are authorized by the National Park Service—are shut down completely, and he is offering pre-paid visitors options to visit other locations like Monticello, Mt. Vernon and Gettysburg for no additional cost.
Solomon Keene, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., says that hotel bookings have dropped, in part because of the ongoing uncertainty of just how long the government will remain closed.
“We are seeing some decrease in hotel bookings, and it's not necessarily the impact of the government shutdown as much as it is the uncertainty around the government shutdown. People traveling to Washington D.C. just don't know what is and isn't going to be available,” he says.
For as much as tourism might ebb if the shutdown drags on—D.C. officials have estimated that a shutdown could cost the city between $1 million and $5 million per week—Belpulsi says that this week Destination D.C. has been working with tour operators and hotels to promote alternative options, and they have set up a website listing museums and sites that are open.
“We've been working very closely with the tour operators to expose them to everything else in addition to the National Mall,” she says. “This is also an opportunity for them to get some arts and culture involved, like the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran, Gallery of Art, even the Women's Museum. There are so many other opportunities for them to get out and fill up their itineraries while they're here.”
Tourists seem to be doing just that. The Newseum reports having seen twice the amount of visitors on Tuesday relative to that day in 2012, and four times the amount on Wednesday. The International Spy Museum says that visitor numbers have been up by 30 percent this week, and more group sales are being arranged than usual.
As for the Corcoran, spokeswoman Rachel Cothran says that attendance on Thursday was three times what it usually is. She says that tourists and furloughed federal employees are welcome—the latter can buy two tickets for the price of one—and would likely find some irony in one of the museum’s popular exhibits: Ellen Harvey: The Alien's Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C., which imagines the breakdown of the capital city.