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Day-Trippers Keep D.C. Tourist Sites Hopping

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

The Washington region is still in the afterglow of the Obama inauguration with an influx of tourist activity. But growing demand for Smithsonian museums and events such as the National Cherry Blossom Festival is not necessarily translating into a boon for hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Hotel occupancy was down in February and March compared with a year ago, an indication to some experts that the festival and other free and low-cost activities are drawing cost-conscious Washington area residents who are opting against out-of-town trips.

Nearly 1 million more people this year have flocked to the Smithsonian than during the first three months of 2008, largely because of the reopening of the American History Museum. Despite the larger crowds, the museums' sales are flat at the cafes and down at the retail shops. Moreover, the IMAX theaters are filled to capacity much less often.

"We can only guess that people are trying to save money," said Linda St. Thomas, spokeswoman for the Smithsonian. "People are saying, 'I made my way to Washington and there are a lot of free things,' and they're not spending as much every day."

The continual arrival of tour buses around the museums signals the start of tourism season. While visitors flocking to the area this time of year traditionally have been out-of-town groups on school trips, tourism officials say a growing number of people are coming for an Obama experience.

"We're definitely getting more folks calling and asking, 'Is this where Barack ate?' " said Ben Ali Jr., one of the owners of Ben's Chili Bowl in Northwest Washington. The restaurant, a U Street landmark, became even more popular after Obama dropped by a few days before the inauguration. Ali said interest in the restaurant is so strong that he is in the process of establishing a visitor center.

But increased restaurant traffic is hardly universal. On average, said Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, people are spending less on their meals. While no one tracks overall restaurant sales locally, she said, some are down and others are flat. "Flat is the new up," she said.

Sean and Glynis Sadler, who arrived in Washington on Thursday from Miami, said they wanted to let their 7- and 4-year-old daughters experience what they saw on TV during the inauguration. But even with all the free attractions in Washington, the Sadlers said they are counting their pennies.

"We haven't rented a vehicle," Sean Sadler, 41, an accountant, said Friday, adding that the family is taking the Metro from Crystal City. "We're looking at less expensive restaurants and we won't be purchasing" too many souvenirs.

Glynis Sadler, 40, studying a map in front of the Environmental Protection Agency building on Constitution Avenue NW, said the family decided to stay with relatives for three of their five nights.

Officials at the National Cherry Blossom Festival say an estimated 1 million people attended events last year -- and they expect attendance to surpass those numbers this year.

Organizers of the 16-day festival say visitors began calling earlier than normal for information, and activity on the festival's Web site is up 20 percent. The $17 tickets for grandstand seating for Saturday's parade sold out so fast that about 1,000 more seats were added.

"All indicators show there is growth," said festival President Diana Mayhew.

Robert "Mo" Rouse, director of visitor services for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said T-shirt, posters, hats and other festival souvenirs have sold out four times at a booth at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

"Last year, they had plenty of merchandise," Rouse said. Those items in the past "hadn't sold like this."

Hotel occupancy was up 4 percent in January from the year before because of the inauguration, according to Destination D.C., a nonprofit corporation that promotes local tourism. February hotel occupancy was down 1.5 percent from last year and down 1.8 percent in March. The drop is still much lower than the steep decline in the national occupancy rate during that time: 12 percent.

John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said out-of-town bookings by members in the region fell by 5 percent this year, an indication to him that people are taking more day trips.

"People don't give up travel -- they travel more close to home," Townsend said. "You go all over the world and never explore your back yard. Now people are exploring their back yard."

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