Lacking passports, travelers frozen in place; District's tourism industry says it is losing millions and temporarily laying off workers

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By William Branigin and David Segal
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 2:58 PM

From The Washington Post archives

Published: January 4, 1996, Thursday, Final Edition.

In Los Angeles, Jose Hernandez is desperate to get to El Salvador to visit his gravely ill mother. In Chicago, Fred Etter risks losing an assignment in London for his software company. And in McLean, Va., Mark Hower waits in frustration to see whether he will be able to attend a major international sales conference.

Like thousands of other Americans, they are victims of the federal government shutdown, which is beginning to affect travel-related businesses across the country and is taking a particularly heavy toll on Washington's hotel and restaurant industries.

Unable to obtain new passports or get their expired ones replaced while the State Department remains unfunded, the grounded would-be travelers stand to lose thousands of dollars from canceled travel plans, as well as untold opportunities that have no price.

Equally annoyed and perplexed are thousands of foreigners whose plans to travel to the United States have been stymied by their inability to get visas from U.S. embassies and consulates.

That, in turn, is translating into heartburn for U.S. universities, many of whose foreign students cannot get into the United States to attend classes, and for tourism-related businesses ranging from hotels to cruise lines.

For the local tourism industry, the shutdown is forcing layoffs and causing millions of dollars in losses, industry sources said.

The Hotel Association of Washington estimates that hotels lost 10 percent of their business, or about $19 million, during November and December, which cost the District roughly $2.5 million in tax revenue. The losses caused hotels to lay off, at least temporarily, about 10 percent of their work force, the association said.

The Holiday Inn Capitol at Smithsonian, for instance, is operating with 25 staffers, about 50 fewer than usual, because the hotel has lost $400,000 in revenue during the shutdown.

"These are people who, unlike federal workers, won't get back pay when the government opens again," said David Wilhelm, the hotel's general manager.

The shutdown's repercussions will hurt business for months, even if the standoff ends immediately, an industry spokeswoman said. "Tour planners -- especially for overseas tours -- are starting to take Washington off their itineraries and just sending people straight to Florida," said Emily Vetter of the hotel association. "The market is losing faith in the District. When you're booking business to a city, you don't want to have to call and find out if the town is open."

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