D.C. tourism: City sees boost in visitors, but full recovery elusive

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D.C. welcomed nearly 6 million more visitors last year than in 2020, a sign that people are on the move and eager to travel. It’s also a stark reminder of the challenges the nation’s capital faces as it seeks to rebuild a tourism economy reeling from the global pandemic.

Destination DC, the city’s marketing arm, announced Wednesday that 19.1 million people visited the District in 2021, up from 13.3 million in 2020, when pandemic-related closures and travel restrictions largely grounded domestic and international travel. About 18.8 million of those who came to the nation’s capital last year were domestic travelers, while about 270,000 were international visitors.

Travelers spent $5.4 billion in the city, according to estimates from Destination DC, which supported nearly 58,000 local jobs. As cities across the country compete for the same tourism dollars, local officials said D.C. must be aggressive about marketing the city while incorporating changing travel habits amid the pandemic.

“It’s clear that we are focused on getting back to normal,” said Elliott L. Ferguson II, Destination DC’s executive director. “There are a lot of indicators that give you a sense that things are coming back online.”

Destination DC is projecting that tourism will continue to increase this year. It credits a rise in conventions, widespread vaccinations and more interest in travel.

While an improvement, the 2021 numbers illustrate how far D.C. still has to go. In 2019, before the pandemic, 24.6 million people visited the city, which generated $8.2 billion and supported 79,675 jobs. The number of visitors last year is just more than three-quarters of 2019 levels.

Ferguson made the announcement Wednesday during an annual Destination DC meeting at the newly re-christened Waldorf Astoria Washington DC, one of several hotels that have opened or been renovated during the pandemic. It was previously the Trump International Hotel; former president Donald Trump earlier this year sold his government lease for the property to CGI Merchant Group for $375 million.

Trump sells D.C. hotel lease to Miami investment group

Travel industry officials said local tourism growth plans involve targeting international visitors, who tend to spend more. Before the pandemic, international visitors made up about 7 percent of travelers to the nation’s capital but spent 27 percent of all tourism dollars in the city.

The end of a 33-nation ban in November that barred most non-U.S. citizens from visiting the country has proved to be a boon for the travel industry, as was the Biden administration’s decision to end a requirement that international travelers show proof of a negative coronavirus test before flying. At the same time, staffing shortages this year have prompted flight delays and cancellations in the United States and Europe, forcing airlines to trim their schedules. Other segments of the travel industry, including hotels and restaurants, are similarly struggling with finding enough workers.

Geoff Freeman, the incoming president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said that throughout the pandemic, the industry has done “a good job with a bad hand.” He estimated that $1 trillion in travel spending has been lost nationwide as a result of dampened enthusiasm since the start of the pandemic.

Tourists are beginning to return to D.C. But the industry’s employees are still struggling.

“With a concerted effort to address today’s head winds — including slow-to-return business travel and government-induced obstacles for international visitors — we’re confident that Washington, D.C., and the nation can achieve a full recovery,” he said.

Despite the travel slowdown, local tourism officials say the region has laid the groundwork for a recovery.

Ferguson said the second phase of the Wharf development is set to open this fall. Across the city, at least 26 new hotels or renovations are in the pipeline, which will add about 5,900 new or improved rooms. The recent Something in the Water festival in downtown Washington over the Juneteenth weekend is another example of the city’s efforts to expand event offerings, Ferguson said.

Across the Potomac River, officials at Reagan National Airport last year opened a new 14-gate concourse, replacing Gate 35X, an infamous bottleneck that required passengers to ride shuttle buses to board their flights. The new concourse allows airlines to operate larger aircraft, potentially increasing the number of visitors. The project also includes new Transportation Security Administration checkpoints aimed at reducing wait times.

So long Gate 35X, long the bane of Reagan National travelers

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said the city hopes to create more destinations for visitors to Washington. She outlined investments the city has made in recent months, including $2.5 million for the D.C. Family Fun program and $2 million to a program focused on reimagining tourism in the city.

“I’m happy to have the opportunity to ensure we are using our resources to make the investments you need to attract people to Washington, those people who live around here, those people who are having staycations, international travelers,” Bowser said. “They’re coming back, and we’re going to be ready for them. D.C. is open.”

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