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

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."

Restaurants have been hit hard as well. Belt tightening by federal workers and a lack of tourists are to blame, according to William Lecos, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. "The industry is losing about $1.5 million a day," he said. "This is no longer a mild annoyance. It's a major problem."

The shutdown has closed Tourmobile Sightseeing Inc., the company that has a contract with the National Park Service to conduct tours of the monuments and federal buildings. Company president Tom Mack said Tourmobile has temporarily laid off 40 employees and is losing $ 10,000 a day. "News of the shutdown is so pervasive that people know they can't get into any of the sites that bring them to Washington," Mack said. "Even international tourists aren't coming."

For Americans who plan to travel abroad, uncertainties over how much longer the shutdown will last are being fueled by conflicting accounts of the requirements for issuing new passports.

Kenneth Hunter, deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, said the department is issuing only "emergency passports" to people who need to travel abroad to attend a funeral, for example, or visit a dying relative. However, people who cite just such emergencies have reported running into obstacles, while others have obtained new passports during the shutdown for nonemergency travel simply by producing paid airline tickets at passport offices.

"I have been coming here for four days in a row," said Jacquline Rosero as she stood in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan passport office while waiting to renew her passport so she could fly to Ecuador to visit her dying grandfather. "Yesterday I was told I needed a fax from my grandfather's doctor. Now I have everything. I just hope he's still alive when I get there."

"A fax?" Chermaine White asked incredulously as she tried to apply for a passport so she could travel to Haiti. "My grandfather doesn't have a fax. He is poor. He is dying in his bed and cannot even afford a doctor. Don't you understand? Not everyone is from the same place."

In Los Angeles, Hernandez, 33, an electrician and naturalized U.S. citizen, said he was prepared to fly back to El Salvador with his Salvadoran passport to visit his sick mother and risk being detained when he tries to reenter the United States. "One way or another, I'll have to be there," he said.

Like others who showed up at the Los Angeles Federal Building, he was referred to a phone number for emergency passport cases, but several people who tried it said the number either was perpetually busy or rang unanswered.

Chicago-based Etter, 23, who works for a Canadian software company, said he is paying a Washington passport-expediting firm $125 to get his application processed as soon as the government reopens in hopes of leaving for an assignment in London on Jan. 9. "It's a big deal for me," he said. "I've been wanting to go overseas for a long time, and now that I finally have the opportunity I may lose it. I'm pretty irritated at the whole situation."

In McLean, Hower, 35, the eastern regional manager of Derwent North America Inc., a patent and scientific information company, said he mailed his expired passport in for renewal so he could attend an international sales conference in London this month with company representatives from the United States, Europe and Japan. "I don't know where my passport is right now," he said.

The State Department's Hunter said his office, which usually issues about 70,000 passports a week, has been processing only about 1,000 emergency passports a week since the shutdown and now has a backlog of nearly 200,000. "We are unable to help," Hunter said. "It's devastating for us as well."

Special correspondents Nancy Reckler in New York, Catharine Skipp in Miami and Kathryn Wexler in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company