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Tourists Skip the Capital for Flashier Sites

September 1, 1995

Once a must-see for vacationing families, the nation’s capital now finds tourists looking elsewhere.

Tourism is booming nationwide, but visits to the Jefferson Memorial have fallen more than 40 percent in two years and are down at least 20 percent at the Vietnam Memorial this year. In fact, barring a sharp upturn this fall, Washington will suffer its second-worst year in tourism in a decade, second only to the Gulf War slump in 1991.

The good news for the tourists who do come to the capital: Hotels and restaurants have been cutting prices.

``We’re living in the age of Disney and flashy theme parks, and Washington landmarks can’t compete with that,″ says Joe Brancatelli, an editor of Travel Holiday magazine. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, just 7 percent of Americans said they wanted to see the capital this summer, compared with 89 percent who said they prefered to go to Florida, California or Hawaii.

Travel Holiday’s Mr. Brancatelli says tourists are still drawn to historical attractions around the country, but ``when people think of Washington nowadays, they’re not thinking of history, they’re thinking of crime, poverty and race.″

Total crime in the city, having reached a high in 1993, dropped 7 percent last year, but the city’s bad reputation continues to deter tourists _ as does considerable cynicism around the country about the workings of the national government. ``Washington has never been up there as a high priority for me,″ says Mitch von Gnechten, a 33-year-old Phoenix resident who has never traveled to the nation’s capital. ``I mean, look at what’s coming out of there: If it’s not crime and murder, it’s corruption.″

But it is the allure of other attractions that is keeping many student groups away, according to the Close Up Foundation, a leading organizer of high-school trips to Washington. Foundation officials say about 2,500 schools will take part in the company’s program this year, its second-lowest total since 1985.

Another organizer of such trips, Federal City Tours, is expecting only 6,000 students this year-down from 10,000 five years ago. Pat Wolverton, owner of Federal City, says fewer of those students are part of a history or political-science class; instead, they are only going to Washington to perform in some event, like a national high-school debate or a spelling bee. ``You hear about schools that used to go to Washington going to Disney World or Europe instead,″ she says. ``I wasn’t hearing that before.″

Indeed, students at Bernardo Heights Middle School in San Diego won’t be flying to Washington this school year with a history and English teacher, as was customary in the past. But they will probably take a trip to Sea World and Disneyland, says assistant principal Elaine Johnson. And last year, one group of students went to Spain. Kristin Flaherty, a 13-year-old student at the school, offers a typical comment: ``I’d rather go to Hawaii . . . than stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial.″

Veterans, once a staple of the capital’s tourist industry, haven’t been flocking to Washington either. The new Korean War Veterans Memorial, which opened this summer, drew disappointing crowds. And the 50th anniversary of V-J Day last month failed to bring about a military influx.

The tourists who do get to Washington this summer remark on how deserted the city seems. On a recent Saturday, A.J. Lundstrom emerges from his hotel lobby near Pennsylvania Avenue and sees hardly a soul. A 30-year-old artist from New York, Mr. Lundstrom is on his first trip to Washington and finds the dearth of tourists a major disappointment. ``I guess I was expecting to see a bunch of flag-waving Americans,″ he says. ``Geez, it’s awfully quiet.″

Some of the summer’s inactivity can be attributed to an exodus of vacationing Washingtonians. But Louis Williams, who owns a tailor shop in the vicinity of the White House, is particularly struck by how few tourists he has observed in recent days. ``Everything is off 100 percent,″ he says, shaking his head. ``Things sure aren’t like they used to be.″

Those who depend on crowds of tourists are particularly downcast. Joel Ojelade, a cab driver in Washington for six years, says his business is increasingly coming from locals and foreigners. ``I haven’t seen too many domestic tourists lately,″ he sighs.

So far, the response from city officials has been low-key. Washington is planning a major expansion of its convention center, but that won’t be completed until around the year 2000. ``Of course, things change from one year to next,″ says Marie Tibor, spokeswoman for the city’s Convention and Visitors Association, when asked about the tourism numbers.

But hotels and restaurants aren’t passively awaiting the next cycle. Among those using price cuts to entice customers, even a four-star property like the Jefferson Hotel has been offering 40 percent markdowns.

``No question about it,″ says Randy Smith, of Smith Travel Research, a hotel-research company. ``Washington has become one of the best bargains around.″

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