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D.C. Bills Itself as the Capital of Tourism, Too

Travel is projected to decline this year, but tourism officials and businesses in the District hope to capitalize on the capital city's attractions to pull in tourists.
Travel is projected to decline this year, but tourism officials and businesses in the District hope to capitalize on the capital city's attractions to pull in tourists. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

Rain or shine, summer begins this Memorial Day weekend for the travel industry, and the forecast is cloudy with a strong chance of scattered tourists.

Nationally, the travel industry is expecting a 2.2 percent decline this summer for all tourism businesses -- including bookings for planes, hotels, theme parks and resorts -- after taking a similar dip in 2008.

The Washington region, which gets nearly $10 billion annually from tourism, expects to feel the effects. Summer convention bookings in the District are down at least 5 percent from last year -- and so are hotel reservations associated with that business.

City tourism officials, who are projecting a 2 percent decline for the year, say they have no firm data to determine the outlook for the summer, but they are hoping for the best based on positive signs here and there, and they are advertising heavily.

Locally, holiday bookings at some hotels are up, which a city tourism bureau attributes to an uptick in leisure travel. But that may not be enough to keep some national chains out of trouble.

"While there may be signs that business going forward may be stabilizing somewhat, we're at a very low level, and thousands of jobs at our company and others are at stake," J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr. said at a pro-travel rally in Washington last week.

AAA Mid-Atlantic is forecasting an increase in the number of people across the country traveling 50 miles or more from home this Memorial Day weekend. The automobile club is projecting that 1.5 percent more people will travel this summer, 32.4 million this year compared with 31.9 million last year. Preliminary data show that travel in the Washington area will exceed that growth rate, AAA said.

"Keep in mind [that the 2009 projection] is still down from the 35.3 million who traveled in 2007," said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "People in the industry will be watching the numbers to see if there will be a big bounceback -- that tourism is returning."

Overall hotel bookings are steady, which, considering dramatic drops in other regions, is good news to local tourism officials.

"Flat is the new up," said Stephanie Pace Brown, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association. "We're optimistic about leisure travel -- we think it will be a little worse than last year. Business travel is more of a concern."

This year, fighting back against the recession, local tourism officials are counting on a strong marketing campaign to woo a larger number of out-of-town visitors to the area: a potential blockbuster movie set at the National Air and Space Museum; the popularity of President Obama and his family; and the appeal of more than 100 free attractions -- as well as deep discounts at more than two dozen hotels -- all aimed at increasingly cost-conscious tourists.

"In some way, the economic situation is [a boon] to Washington," said Richard A. Spigler, chairman of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. Spigler, who is also president of the company that runs the Carlyle and Savoy hotels, said holiday bookings are up, particularly at the Savoy, where they increased about 25 percent.


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