Maryam Mohseni, '24
Before the pandemic D.C. was one of the most visited cities in the country. As the nation's capital, the city is home to some of the most iconic sights in the country. Yearly, it draws tourists for a multitude of reasons; D.C. is even home to an incredible food scene, largely due to the city's diverse community. Much of D.C.’s economy has relied on such tourism as a main source of revenue, meaning it was largely impacted by the lack of travel induced by pandemic guidelines.
However, the pandemic has taken a huge toll on tourism in the city. Before the pandemic, the city had experienced ten consecutive years of significant visitation growth, welcoming about 24.6 million visitors in 2019 alone. In 2020 the city received a mere 11 million visitors, down 53% from the previous year, as the pandemic stymied all travel. As interstate travel was banned, and D.C. declared a state of emergency, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses shut their doors. Additionally, museums and other cultural institutions closed. The Smithsonian museums, which are arguably the most well-known to tourists in D.C., received funding from the federal government. The dozens of private museums also in the city, however, do not have that luxury. Instead, they rely on admission fees, gift shop sales, and donations. Many of them are now facing short- and long-term financial struggles due to the lack of business during COVID; they lost over a year's worth of admission fees, and a season's worth of fundraising events and special programming was canceled. Although many museums shifted to online tours and programs, they barely brought in any revenue. Overall, visitor spending in the district decreased by 68%, or $6.1 billion, from March, 2020 to March, 2021. Not only were tourism scenes in the city negatively affected, but also businesses that rely entirely on housing those traveling through D.C.
The decrease in tourism also heavily affected the employment in the leisure and hospitality industry. 42,000 of the jobs lost in the district were in leisure and hospitality. That is 59% of all jobs lost to the pandemic last year. Despite these setbacks, the D.C community is doing its best to support local businesses and enterprises while slowly returning to pre pandemic life.
Now the city is launching a campaign aiming to bring back visitors to the city and boost employment rates at bars, restaurants, nightclubs, sports arenas, and other attractions. In May, mayor Muriel Browser announced that travel and hospitality are a top priority for recovery. She and hospitality leaders touted a $2.5 million marketing and advertising campaign that strives to bring back visitors who stayed away during the pandemic, in hopes that visitors will revive the industry and bring back tourism and hospitality jobs. Elliott Ferguson, President, and CEO of Destination DC, a nonprofit organization that focuses on economic development tied to visitors coming to the city, said a big focus will be on vaccinations. As vaccination rates for adults rose, D.C. government officials lifted restrictions on businesses and ended the state of emergency, signaling that D.C. was ready to welcome tourists back.
Destination DC expects that by 2022, the district will be receiving about 80% of the domestic tourists it did in 2019. However, international travelers are not expected to return till 2024. Although all visitors are crucial to the district's tourism industry, international visitors are especially important because they have a greater economic impact as they tend to stay longer and spend more.
Until international travel rebounds, D.C.’s tourism industry will not be able to fully recover. In the meantime, businesses, museums, and other affected industries must learn to adjust to the new pandemic normal. As residents of such a unique district, we should be mindful in the upcoming year of the losses due to the lack of tourism by mindfully supporting small businesses, local restaurants, independent museums, and other gems of D.C. in order to help preserve the diverse spectacle of activities and attractions that exist in the nation’s capital.