Tourists getting in your way? There’s a $7 billion reason to be patient.
But there’s a big pay-off for all that annoyance: Last year’s visitors spent nearly $7 billion while they were here.
Washington tourism is expanding partly because the city, believe it or not, is acquiring a reputation as a hip destination. No longer is it a place just for monuments, museums and other patriotic buildings.
Instead, the revival of many downtown neighborhoods and the emergence of a bicycle-friendly, “green” culture is luring a new kind of tourist, interested in enjoying restaurants, nightlife, sports and the city’s parks and waterfront.
The District’s image as a vacation spot has enjoyed a tipping point in the past 12 months. In August, Forbes Magazine — yes, Forbes — labeled Washington “America’s coolest city.” It cited Washington’s “abundant enter tainment and recreational options” and its young, culturally diverse population.
The accolade triggered considerable snickering on social media, where naysayers dismissed Washington as pompous and uptight. Even a city tourism official acknowledged that “the least cool thing is to be called the coolest city by Forbes.”
But then Lonely Planet, an international guidebook popular with young travelers, offered similar kudos. The publication named Washington the world’s “top city” to visit in 2015. It praised the District’s recent “rebirth of style,” “venerable performing arts tradition” and “incredible ethnic eats.”
Such applause thrilled District authorities, who welcome tourists and spend nearly $20 million a year trying to draw more. Money is the reason, of course. All those dollars spent on hotels, restaurants and tacky souvenirs are one of the strongest props for the local economy.
Tourists are a net plus financially, even after accounting for the extra cost for crowd control at such events as the Fourth of July fireworks, the National Cherry Blossom Festival and the political demonstrations that draw visitors for reasons unique to Washington.
The billions spent annually by visitors support about 75,000 jobs, according to Destination DC, the city’s tourist agency.
By contrast, the total cost for the National Park Service for this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival was $246,000. The expense for a large-scale “First Amendment” gathering, such as Earth Day or the March for Life, tops out at about $240,000.
Even handling Saturday’s crowd for the fireworks display was estimated to cost less than $1 million.
“When you think about the economic impact, [tourism] is a nuisance that we should all be willing to deal with,” Destination DC President Elliott L. Ferguson II said.
Plus, as some residents concede with a smile, it’s flattering to live in a city that attracts so many.
“There are, of course, some hassles of having to wait in line and deal with traffic,” Robert A. Vogel, regional director of the National Park Service, said. “But if suddenly the tourists quit coming, beyond the economics, people would be saddened by it, because I think people are proud of living here, proud to see their region is this great destination.”
As an object of griping for Washingtonians, tourists rank up there with Beltway traffic, Metro delays and the Redskins’ performance.
Some grouse that the visitors drive up prices. Others kvetch that they occupy too many parking spaces. The top two complaints are about the visitors’ sheer numbers and their ignorance of urban etiquette.
Erin O’Brien, an intern at the Smithsonian, said she skipped seeing the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin this year because the crowds were too large.
“When there’s just throngs of people, it takes away from the beauty of the place,” O’Brien said.
Mitch Kohn, who works as a Metro information-technology worker, said as he walked along the Mall on a sunny day: “I love walking here and seeing everything, but the crowds are bothersome at times.”
Aimless, distracted tourists who block the path of work-obsessed locals are particularly maddening, especially in Metro stations. The DCist blog calls tourists “escaleftors.”
“They don’t know how to use the Metro system,” said Caroline Miller, a senior business analyst for the Government National Mortgage Association. “People are trying to get to work. They’re like doorstops.”
James Gordon, who makes a living off tourists in his marketing job for the Smithsonian, was astonished last year when he encountered a family at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station that had never seen an escalator.
“They were marveling at it,” Gordon said. “Of course, they didn’t stand to the right.”
State Department employee Mike McQueen, who lives in Hollywood, Md., said the large crowds and frequent street closings made it hard to drive into the city on weekends. “People are unfamiliar with the traffic patterns,” he said. “It definitely slows things down.”
If it’s any consolation, other cities have similar complaints. In New York in 2010, YouTube pranksters painted a white line down a Fifth Avenue sidewalk and labeled one side “Tourists” and the other “New Yorkers.” They then directed pedestrians to one lane or the other, according to their pace.
“Ma’am, if you’re going to just stand, could you stand in the tourist lane? That’s for slow people,” one jokester said.
The YouTube video drew 1.8 million hits. Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg said the idea was “very cute.”
When Forbes proclaimed Washington the nation’s “coolest city,” it represented a public relations triumph for the city’s tourism promoters.
A year earlier, Destination DC had launched a major effort to rebrand the city with the label “DC Cool.” It did so after realizing that the previous campaign, “Power D.C.,” was sending the wrong message.
The earlier effort tried to exploit Washington’s reputation as a center of authority.
In part, it sought to attract conventioneers wanting access, or at least proximity, to the nation’s political elite. It ran advertisements showing well-dressed, confident-looking people at “power lunches” and “power meetings.”
Then the marketers saw that they were alienating people who wanted vacations and conventions to be fun. And they were missing an opportunity to tell people how much the District has changed.
“You don’t want them to think we’re all wearing suits and ties and talking politics,” Ferguson said. “There was a lot of pushback. Globally, the word ‘power’ seemed to be arrogant. Locally, it seemed to be a little too ‘in your face.’ ”
Now ads for the city show fashionable young people chatting at a bar, shopping for jewelry, biking or enjoying water sports.
The city is stressing that it has the nation’s second-highest number of theater seats, after New York. It’s promoting the Nationals, Wizards and Capitals, all winning teams. It thinks the recently approved new stadium for D.C. United will help attract international soccer fans as well as provide a new venue for concerts.
The city also tries to take advantage of its appeal to two audiences with special interests: African Americans and gays.
The District may no longer be “Chocolate City,” but its long history as a place with a strong black middle class and its educational and social institutions dedicated to African Americans continue to attract visitors.
Next year’s opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a new draw.
Washington also is considered friendly to gays, and Lonely Planet noted that the city has a “vibrant gay bar scene.”
One aim of DC Cool — which might not please all residents — is to persuade tourists to spend more time exploring the city rather than staying confined to their traditional habitat around the Mall.
Drawing more tourists to Chinatown, Adams-Morgan or the area around Nationals Park would be good for restaurants, clubs and other businesses. But it also could add to congestion and strain the transportation system.
Promoters acknowledge that moving a rising number of visitors around an increasingly crowded city is one of their biggest challenges.
Destination DC, the National Park Service and Metro all encourage tourists to leave their cars at home and use public transportation. Last month, the city added a Circulator Bus route around the Mall area. And Metro suspends some track repairs during the Cherry Blossom Festival so it can run the maximum number of railcars.
Still, more than half of the leisure travelers who visit the District come here by personal car. During peak periods, about 1,200 tour buses visit the Mall area each day.
Lack of parking for the buses is a perennial headache, the subject of five in-depth studies since 2008. Many buses cruise the city or double-park while their passengers are out sightseeing.
“There are certain areas of the city where, clearly, we’re going to have issues as more and more visitors come into the city with buses,” Ferguson said. “We’re going to have to become smarter in terms of how we get around.”
Among people who depend on tourists for their customers, few complain about the crowds.
Guest Services Inc. employs about 300 people to operate snack kiosks on the Mall, paddle boats on the Tidal Basin and other recreational businesses under a contract with the National Park Service.
“The National Cherry Blossom Festival is a huge revenue driver for us,” said Kris Rohr, director of marketing. “This year’s festival was the best ever.”
At the other end of the economic scale, scores of small entrepreneurs make a meager living peddling refreshments, hats and T-shirts from trucks and trailers parked near major tourist sites.
Sultan Kamara showed a wad of bills totaling $120 that he said he had taken in by mid-afternoon recently from selling ice cream and soda outside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“Ninety percent of my customers are tourists,” Kamara said. “A good day is $300, $400.”
Kamara said he spends all day giving directions to bewildered tourists. During an interview, he broke off briefly to tell visitors from Pennsylvania and Colorado how to find a Metro station and get to the Capitol.
But Kamara also said he relishes being “an ambassador for the city” and seeing the visitors’ enthusiasm.
“When tourists come right up in front of the Washington Monument, they’re as happy as somebody who just won $1 million,” he said.
An earlier version of this story identified Randy Holmes as the escalator technician who described tourists as “always lost.” He is Tony Messick. After the story was published Messick said he had falsely identified himself as as a joke. Both men work for the same company.
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