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Tourism Declines in Capital; Crime, Weather Blamed

May 30, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The years seem to run together for Sara Keren, a vendor who for eight years has made a living snapping pictures of tourists who pose on Pennsylvania Avenue next to a cutout of the president.

Keren, sitting on a chair next to a cardboard of President Bush, said she sells about 10 photos a day - a figure that has remained constant for years. So, when told official statistics show tourism in the nation’s capital is sagging, she added with a hint of surprise: ″I had no idea. I really haven’t noticed any difference from last year to this year. But I hardly ever do.″

Figures compiled by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service indicate that tourism is down in Washington during the first four months of 1989 compared with that period last year. Officials put the blame on everything from the weather to the rise in crime.

Tom Mack, president of Tourmobile, the company under contract with the federal government to conduct tours on the mall and Arlington National Cemetery, conceded that the increased homicide rate in the District of Columbia could be a factor. The homicide toll stands at a record 189 so far this year, compared with 122 at this time last year.

″I’d like to think all the rain we’ve had was the biggest reason for the downturn, but this is not to say I’m not concerned about the criminal behavior in Washington,″ he said. ″But I can’t see that it’s any worse than say, New York or Philadelphia.″

The Smithsonian’s most popular museum, Air and Space, reported 400,000 fewer tourists from January through April, a drop of 15 percent, compared with those months last year. In all, an estimated 7.2 million visitors strolled through Smithsonian museums in the first four months of 1989, compared with 8.2 million a year earlier.

But officials at the Smithsonian are not panicking. The 1989 figures are higher than those registered in a similar period in 1984 through 1987.

″The dropoff in 1989 could just be part of the normal range,″ said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. ″A million here or there is certainly no cause for alarm, and compared to 1987 we’re right up there.″

Smithsonian figures show 7.9 million visitors flocked to the institution’s 14 museums in the first four months of 1984. The figure dipped to 6.3 million in 1985, jumped to 6.8 million the following year, then crept up to 7.1 million in 1987 before peaking last year.

″Yes, 1988 was a boom year,″ said Mack. ″Remember, last year was the hottest, warmest and driest year in recent memory.″

Ms. St. Thomas figures the 1988 totals were helped along by the opening of several notable exhibits, while this year’s attendance was hampered by the closing of two museums: the Castle Building and the Freer Gallery of Art. As added evidence to support the idea that tourism in the nation’s capital is alive and well, Ms. St. Thomas said 77 school tours were booked for the Air and Space Museum in April of this year compared with 29 last year.

Still, there’s no arguing that the overall numbers are lower, and not just at Smithsonian exhibits. The Park Service said there were 59 percent fewer visitors at the Lincoln Memorial and decreases of 13 percent at the Vietnam Memorial and 39 percent at the Jefferson Memorial this year.

Mack said his figures were down 2.4 percent over the first four months of 1989 compared with last year. But, like Ms. St. Thomas, he was hardly discouraged.

″That’s well within the acceptable range,″ he said. ″I’m not terribly concerned.″

Mack cited ″abominable″ weather as the chief culprit to the downswing.

Records at the National Weather Service showed more than 10 more days of rain or snow measuring more than 0.01 inch this year compared with the first four months of 1988.

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