Tourists in your way? There’s a $7 bil­lion rea­son to be pa­tient.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBERT MCCART­NEY

They crowd down­town side­walks, and their char­ter buses block the streets. They pester the lo­cals for di­rec­tions. Worst of all, they stub­bornly refuse to learn to stand on the right, walk on the left on Metro es­ca­la­tors.

The swarms of sun­burned, cam­era lug­ging, T-shirt-clad tourists who in­vade Washington each sum­mer are a fa­vorite tar­get for res­i­dents’ grum­bling. “They’re al­ways lost,” said es­ca­la­tor tech­ni­cian Randy Holmes, who re­cently spent days ob­serv­ing the out­siders while he made re­pairs at the Smith­so­nian Metro sta­tion. “They get in the way. They don’t pay at­ten­tion. They add to traf­fic.”

Such vent­ing may of­fer tem­po­rary psy­chic re­lief, but it will not stop the in­flow. The more than 18.3 mil­lion do­mes­tic visi­tors to the Dis­trict in 2014 set a record for the fifth straight year. Ex­perts pro­ject that the num­ber will con­tinue to grow at least through 2017.

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

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.”

‘ They’re like doorstops’

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, ac­cord en­ter­tain­ment ing 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.”

City’s ads shift the fo­cus

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.”

A boon for some ven­dors

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.”

His daily profit mar­gin is only in the dou­ble dig­its, how­ever, af­ter buy­ing ice and sup­plies and pay­ing $300 a week to rent the truck. When he can, he sends money to his grown chil­dren in Sierra Leone.

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.


Tourist sea­son in the Dis­trict is in full swing, but for res­i­dents, some as­pects of ev­ery­day life ap­pear to be slow­ing down. Clock­wise from top left, un­fa­mil­iar­ity with the un­spo­ken pol­icy forMetro es­ca­la­tors— stand on the right, walk on the left— leaves no room for the lat­ter; a DC Ducks sight­see­ing tour boat creeps along in traf­fic near theWash­ing­tonMon­u­ment; groups of tourists wan­der the­Mall and its mon­u­ments; and, like many other tourists near the WhiteHouse, two peo­ple experiment with find­ing the per­fect po­si­tions for self­ies.

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