As Covid ebbs, tourists make their comeback to US capital

·3-min read
Tourists, some in face masks while others are not, visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on May 14, 2021.

With the park in front of the White House reopening this week, selfie-snapping tourists have suddenly reappeared.

Washington DC, home to some of the toughest anti-Covid regulations in the country, is now reopening, highlighting the United States's steady transition back to normality.

Boasting imposing landmarks such as the US Capitol and the Supreme Court, Washington began reopening the doors of its museums on Friday, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Portrait Gallery, which will soon host a painting of former president Donald Trump.

By next Friday, six museums run by the famed Smithsonian Institution, and the National Zoo, will once again welcome visitors as vaccination rates climb and infections continue to plunge.

The question now is how to attract more tourists and spur an economic rebound after a year of pandemic restrictions that left the US federal capital city, normally a hub for conferences and meetings of international institutions, stricken.

"For the moment, I have very few customers," said Ngre Phung, whose mobile souvenir shop is parked near the African American museum.

So far, DC residents, who are packing the terraces of restaurants and bars, haven't rushed downtown to peruse Phung's selection of caps, T-shirts and other trinkets. Instead the shopkeeper relies heavily on visitors to nearby museums.

"It's very key with the museums opening," said Anne Purcell, director of hospitality market analytics for the northeast region at CoStar Group.

Between the 555-foot (170-meter) Washington Monument obelisk and a memorial to World War II, Read Scott Martin sat on his pedicab, patiently waiting for customers to emerge from the crowd.

- Waiting for full vaccination -

At the moment he gives about three or four tours a day, but that can double on weekends.

"The last few weeks, it was improving," he said, especially since the city's Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring. His optimism is boosted by increasing arrivals of tourists from Asia and Latin America.

One of them is 17-year-old Valeria, who came from Peru for a week-long visit, posing for photos in front of the White House with her little sister and parents.

"We wanted to come before the Covid but we have to cancel our trip," she said.

However, the overwhelming majority of visitors are from other US states coming to see family, or tourists stopping by on their way to New York.

Ghania and Abdel, who live in Los Angeles, were in Washington to visit their daughter Shiraz, 26, who just graduated from Georgetown University.

"This is our first trip in just over a year," the couple originally from Algeria said in French. "We were waiting to be fully vaccinated and for the city to get a little busier."

But these leisure travelers are not the ones who typically fill hotel rooms.

Hotel occupancy in Washington, DC on Saturday, May 1 was only 43.4 percent, slipping to 42.4 percent the following Saturday, according to STR, which provides data and analysis for the industry.

That's far from the 80.3 percent and 78.6 percent recorded on the first two Saturdays in May 2019.

"Tourism is only one component of the city's business," said Purcell, noting that Washington is "very reliant" on conventions and business travel.

With travel restrictions still in place for many countries including large parts of Europe, the tourism sector is still struggling and its recovery is uncertain.

"It's still very unclear whether business travel will return to pre-pandemic levels because everyone has gotten so used to doing so much online," Purcell said.

In 2019, Washington welcomed 1.8 million visitors from abroad, led by China, Britain and India, and 22.8 million domestic visitors, according to Destination D.C.

While waiting for the return of international business travelers, the organization will soon launch a major advertising campaign to target the American public.