What's Virginia's leading travel spot?


Virginia Beach?

Wrong. It's Arlington. Thanks to a boom in hotel construction and the lure of Washington, more travel dollars are being spent in the Northern Virginia county than any other jurisdiction in the state, according to state officials. That surprising figure comes from Arlington's reputation as a great place to find an inexpensive hotel room.

"No one is here to see Arlington," says Tom Begin, assistant manager of Rossyln's Holiday Inn. "They're here to see Washington, on business, or vacation."

Still, travel spending in the county rose to more than $350 million in 1981, generating more than 8,500 jobs, said Doug Frechling, director of the U.S. Travel Data Center, a nonprofit research center in Washington. Frechling said travel is one of the largest industries in Arlington, second only to the federal government.

Despite Arlington's ranking -- it's been the top travel location for the past four years -- county officials complain that Virginia doesn't do enough to promote the county's travel business. "Arlington is totally forgotten, yet you can see from the figures how much money the state gets out of us," says Robert Gratton, chairman of the Arlington Visitors' Commission.

In 1980, the last year for which precise estimates are available, the Virginia State Travel Service said the travel industry spent $298 million in Arlington, $69 million more than in Williamsburg and far exceeding the $182 million figure for Virginia Beach. The service estimates about $16 million in state and local taxes was generated by the Arlington travel in that year.

Unlike either of the other two Virginia attractions, Arlington's travel industry largely is supported by business executives, not tourists. Indeed, spokesmen for many Arlington hotels say weekends are their slowest times.

"Monday through Friday, it's your corporate traveler," said Craig Henkels, front office manager of the 303-room Rossyln Hyatt Inn.

Government-related travel also contributes substantially to Arlington's travel business, partly because of the Pentagon and to the Navy Department, which leases about 2.3 million square feet of Arlington office space.

"Seventy-five to 80 percent of all of our business is commercial and commercial means the United States government," said Gratton, general manager of the 245-room Hospitality House Motor Inn in Crystal City.

Part of the upsurge in Arlington travel is a product of the county's hotel construction boom that is continuing despite the recession. The county now has 30 hotels and 6,482 rooms, including the newly opened 615-room Crystal City Hyatt. Two more hotels with 652 rooms are under construction in the Crystal City area and one massive hotel is planned for Pentagon City with 2,000 rooms.

The District of Columbia, by comparison, has about 16,500 hotel rooms.

Despite the numbers of businessmen and tourists who stay in Arlington, many don't know much about the county, a problem officials say is exacerbated by Arlington's low profile.

To help overcome that problem, the county-funded Arlington Visitors' Service is taking a more aggressive role. "The point of view has changed from handling requests to wanting . . . to go out and market Arlington in a comprehensive way," said Director Francine Bradshaw.

From last July through this April, the service has reached 108,000 associations, businesses and individuals through mass mailings, individual mailings, and answers to inquiries. The agency will spend $85,000 next year, up from $75,705 for the fiscal year ending in July.

"The Visitors' commission has accomplished a lot in the identity area, but there is still a long way to go," said Gratton. "Arlington is a place; it's not a cemetery."