It started, as it often does, when the DC Nation Tours bus passed Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. A many-accented murmur of curiosity was followed by a shouted question from a Peruvian visitor in the back.
“What do local people really think of him?”
“What do local people think of President Trump?” veteran D.C. tour guide Maricar Donato repeated evenly into her microphone on a hot July morning, instantly wary of any political discord that might ding a $7.5 billion tourism industry that brings 20 million annual visitors to the nation’s capital.
“He is too reactive,” called a man from Guatemala.
“Fifty percent of the people love him and 50 percent can’t stand him,” offered a tourist from Miami.
“Fifty-fifty,” repeated Donato, a Filipino immigrant, latching on to a compromise. “That is a good answer. He is our president, and we respect that. Now look at the Corinthian columns on the National Archives on your right . . . ”
The bus rolled on, the tourists sat back, and Donato had once again deflected a tour-group tempest particular to Trump-era touring: sightseeing devolving into slight-slinging.
Some groups have erupted in boos when passing the Trump-emblazoned hotel, while others have nearly emptied the souvenir carts of Make America Great Again caps. It falls to beleaguered tour guides to keep peace on the bus during a broiling, roiling tourist season.
“Most people are just here to see the iconic sights they’ve seen on TV,” said guide Steve Hillyard. “I try very hard to stay neutral.”
That didn’t work so well on a recent ride between memorials. One particularly assertive tourist — he won’t say whether the person was pro- or anti-Trump — pressed him on who should get the credit for the current state of the economy. Hillyard’s measured, just-the-facts, please-note-that-passing-statue-of-Alexander-Hamilton answer still managed to inflame the exchange and derail the tour.
“Things kind of fell apart,” Hillyard said. “I’ve usually been very good at redirecting, but that time I wasn’t able to continue with the substance of the tour.”
Presidents have always loomed large over tours, the guides say. “I had plenty of people ask me if [President Barack] Obama was a Muslim,” said Donato.
But as with many things, the tensions are heightened in the Trump era. Many are worried that foreign visitors in particular are being turned off — even turned away — by a trash-talking, tariff-loving commander in chief. And a strong dollar hasn’t helped, making the country harder to afford for many foreigners.
“My tours are getting smaller and smaller,” said Dutch-speaking guide Ruth Roberts, whose typical groups of 30 or so have shrunk to about 17 this summer. Three of her fall groups from Europe have already canceled as well. “The feeling has soured tremendously.”
While hard numbers won’t be available for months, tour operators are reporting a drop in visits from countries Trump has targeted on trade, immigration and religion, with the controversial travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries recently upheld by the Supreme Court. Tourism analysts worry the protracted legal battle over the travel ban has tarnished the United States’ reputation as a welcoming nation.
“The legal purgatory we’ve just endured was tantamount to a PR hell,” said Jonathan Grella, vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association, an industry nonprofit group that seeks to increase travel to and within the United States. “We need the White House now to focus on a deliberate and explicit message of welcome to legitimate travelers.”
At risk, Grella said, is the American share of the global travel boom that is beginning to bypass the country. The number of foreign visitors to the United States has remained mostly flat even as it spikes in the other top 12 destinations around the world. According to his group, the share of tourists to the United States from Britain, France, Germany, Brazil and Australia has fallen between 14 and 25 percent in the past two years; Turkey is the only other top destination to see a decline in that period.
And those who do come are closer than usual to becoming embroiled in the churning domestic dispute between the president’s backers and haters.
Jackie Frend, the president of the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, noticed this spring that some of the venerable eighth-grade school visits to the District were skipping a once-sacrosanct stop: the White House.
“Some of them, they just don’t want to see it,” said Frend, whose group includes more than 50 guides speaking 20 languages. “I ask the teachers why it’s not on the itinerary, and they just shrug.”
Meanwhile, conservative tourists are coming to the nation’s capital in greater numbers, according to several tour operators, drawn both by their support for the president and the opening of the popular Museum of the Bible a block from the Mall. Among them are more school groups from pro-Trump red states in the South and the Midwest.
“We’ve got kids in red hats riding the same bus with kids from liberal states like California,” said Lance Harvey, the founder of School Tours for America, a major organizer of student trips to the city. He gave his guides extra training in the spring so they were ready to broker any political spitball fights.
Harvey said the students have mostly been agreeable; sometimes it’s the adult escorts who are fierce in their views. One teacher proposed skipping the White House stop, only to get a barrage of blowback by email from distant parents.
“Even if they didn’t agree with the White House, they didn’t think that was the right way to handle it,” said Harvey. The teacher apologized and restored the chance to get a photo in front of the White House fence.
“The mood and the vibe are contentious, no doubt about it,” Harvey said.
And at the front of the group, armed only with a radio microphone, a star-spangled umbrella and a deep knowledge of Washington history, tour guides such as Donato are charged with all the defusing and deflecting.
“We try to disarm with charm,” said Donato, a seven-language guide who has been leading groups and training tour guides in the art of deflection for decades.
Back when she was asked where tourists could see Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, she answered that the Smithsonian does boast a lovely collection of first ladies’ gowns. Today, when baffled foreigners ask how come Trump is president when Hillary Clinton got more votes, she’s ready with a spiel on the electoral college.
“Fortunately, I read a children’s book about it so I can explain it simply,” she said.
And how to do they respond?
“They say, ‘What a crazy country you are.’ ”