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D.C. Scenes No Postcard Captures

For research, Urbanski said he toured the city and was "horrified" because it "looked like a city under siege, the security barriers are so in your face."

"Almost everyone visits Washington, D.C. It's our mecca; we go to connect with our country," he said. "We don't want the message to be, unwittingly, one of hunkering down."

Cindy Robinson is next to photograph the Indiana group. The possibility of seeing sharpshooters on the White House roof had students talking. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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That image and the changes that create it are all too familiar to tour guides. Neil Amrine, the owner of Guide Service of Washington, the city's oldest tour company, said the barriers and street closings prevent "people from seeing Washington," particularly those who are elderly or cannot walk long distances.

And some visitors, he said, do not like seeing heavily armed guards. Amrine said he recently told one guide to stop pointing out the Secret Service agents on the White House roof after a group of senior citizens complained.

"To a native Washingtonian, that's standard stuff," he said. "But for these people from Wisconsin, it was scary."

Still, visitors are coming.

One measure of the rekindled interest in tourism, hit hard by the 2001 attacks, is that there are 584 hotels in the metropolitan area, compared with 539 in 2000, according to Smith Travel Research, a Tennessee-based firm that tracks hotel use nationwide. Another measure is the hotel occupancy rate, which was 70 percent last year, about 5 percentage points above the 2002 level and 2 percentage points below what it was before the attack.

The presidential inauguration in January, the rebirth of major league baseball in the city and last year's openings of the National Museum of the American Indian and the National World War II Memorial are helping to fuel the District's recovery, said William A. Hanbury, president of the Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. The city plans to host 40 conventions this year, he said, more than twice the number in 2002. "With a good economy continuing, you have the makings of a very powerful year for Washington, D.C.," he said.

Still, another attack or an international crisis could "put the travel and tourism economy in a tailspin," he said. He acknowledged that security precautions have altered the experience of visiting the city, although he added that "it's not a high negative. People realize that it's the center of government."

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, downtown Washington was fortified. Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House had been closed to vehicles after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. But tour guides say that before Sept. 11, it was easier to move around. Tickets for White House tours could be obtained within a day. Now, groups hoping to visit the building must be sponsored by one of their congressional representatives, and tickets must be obtained at least six months in advance to allow time for background checks.

Back in a different era, said Newpol, the longtime tour guide, President Gerald R. Ford's aides learned that a marching band from his home state of Michigan she was accompanying was performing on the Ellipse. The aides invited the band to meet Ford as he walked across the South Lawn to board the presidential helicopter. "The bandleader wanted to ask the kids, and I said, 'No, let's go,' " she said. "Betty Ford was on the balcony, and President Ford jumped in the crowd and shook hands with every one of them."

Such spontaneity, she said, is unimaginable now. In some cases, tour organizers have altered their routines. A middle-school class of 95 students from North Salem, N.Y., moved its annual spring tour up a few weeks this year to avoid the larger crowds in April that would have made the lines at the metal detectors that much longer.

And instead of taking the time to wait in line for a tour inside the Capitol, as they did each year until Sept. 11, they settled for sitting on the steps of the East Front to listen to their representative, Sue W. Kelly (R).

John Vassak, the school's history teacher who always leads the tour, said the students are losing a valuable experience by not going inside. In years past, he said, "when they saw the State of the Union speech, they could say they had been in the chambers."

The students still managed to find plenty to interest them, including a motorcade, which they were told was the king of Jordan's, leaving the Capitol. They also saw one of those police officers with the automatic rifle, standing guard on the steps.

"Hey, dude!" shouted James Warthmann, 14, wearing a camouflage-style baseball cap, his enthusiasm no less diminished when the officer did not respond.

"The weapons are kind of cool," the teenager said as he waited to board the tour bus. "It's like being at West Point."

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