Washington tourism has rebounded dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with 18.75 million visitors making their way to the nation's capital last year, District tourism officials said yesterday.
That number represents an increase of nearly 11 percent over three years ago, when tourists shunned Washington and travel in general. The rise in visitors boosted the city's ranking one notch, to No. 4 on the list of most popular U.S. travel destinations, according to a national survey by the Travel Industry Association of America.
This year is shaping up to be even better, said D.C. tourism officials, who predicted that Washington would break its record of 19.2 million visitors, set in 1998.
"Even more than most cities, Washington, D.C., was initially hurt by the events of September 11. But we've pulled out of that slump, and we're now back on a record-setting pace," D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) told reporters at his weekly news conference.
The news from the travel industry survey was good across the board for the District, which ranks tourism as its second-largest industry. Last year, the city attracted many more visitors than in 2003, and they spent more money -- $485 a day on average, compared with $455 in 2003.
The higher numbers translate into an additional $1.1 billion in spending in the District by domestic travelers alone, according to the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp.
The city experienced strong growth in the number of leisure and business travelers, with many lured by the opening of such attractions as the National World War II Memorial and the National Museum of the American Indian, said William A. Hanbury, president of the D.C. tourism group.
Hanbury said the opening of the Washington Convention Center also has had a tremendous impact. Conventioneers are expected to buy 570,000 nights in city hotel rooms by the end of the year, more than double the hotel stays generated by the old convention center in 2002, its last full year of operation.
"That Convention Center investment has just paid off and become a tremendous investment for the community," Hanbury said.
Though city officials long have worried that federal security measures throughout the city could present an unwelcoming face to tourists, Hanbury said the bollards, barricades and big guns don't appear to be driving people away.
"I really don't think American consumers are making decisions about where they're going to travel based on security these days," Hanbury said. "People have learned to live with this new era of security. And we're just not getting any push-back from our visitors . . . on the level of security that exists in Washington, D.C. I think people find comfort in that level, in fact."
Washington attracted more than 1 million foreign visitors in 2004, a 22 percent increase over the previous year. But that number remains well below the levels before 9/11, Hanbury said. The tourism group has crafted a plan to lure foreign travelers back to the nation's capital, in part by selling Washington as a fun getaway for a long weekend.
The new campaign paints Washington as a city of vibrant neighborhoods, world-class shopping and U Street jazz, in addition to its museums and monuments, said Victoria Isley, the group's vice president of marketing and communications. Tours by bike and Segway are proving particularly popular among Europeans, she said.
"We had a group of journalists here from the U.K. and Germany this summer who got the biggest kick out of the Segway tour. They thought that was very cool," Isley said.
The travel industry survey offered some insights into the habits of domestic visitors, a quarter of whom came from four U.S. cities: New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Visiting historical places and museums was the most popular activity among those travelers, with trips to city hot spots, visiting family and friends and shopping close behind.
According to the survey, Washington is the fourth-most-popular destination among domestic travelers after nudging ahead of San Francisco, but it still trails Orlando; Las Vegas and New York. Among foreign travelers, the city is the eighth most-popular U.S. destination, the survey found.