DC tourists and conventions are returning, but international visitors are holding off

The District of Columbia thrives on tourism, conventions and business travel — a local industry that has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tourism is recovering, and Destination DC, the city’s tourism arm, says D.C. is seeing demand for meetings and convention bookings for future years. It also expects a full recovery for business travel to D.C. by late 2022 or early 2023.

Leisure travelers have also begun to return to the city.

That’s good news ahead, but it can’t undo tourism losses caused by the pandemic.

In 2019, the District had 24.6 million total visitors, 22.8 million of them domestic, up 4.1%. International visitors in 2019 totaled 1.8 million, down 7.9%. In 2020, total domestic tourist visitors fell to about 7 million, and the number of international tourists visiting D.C. was insignificant.

The forecast ahead is better. Destination DC estimates domestic visitation could rise to between 14 million and 15 million this year, and possibly to 19 million by 2022. But overseas visitation is not expected to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2025.

From March 2020 through March 2021, D.C. visitor spending was down 68% and the city lost $477 million in tax revenue. The city also lost more than 42,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry at the pandemic’s peak, though many of those jobs are returning.

Ongoing U.S. travel bans on several European countries have held back any expectations of a recovery on that front. A recent WalletHub study on how European travel bans will affect all 50 states and the District forecasts D.C.’s economy will take a 6.4% hit to GDP. That’s second only to Nevada, where the economic impact is likely to be close to 10%.

The WalletHub report also notes that only 28 states will see a significant economic impact, of 1% or more, from the lack of European travelers to the U.S. Many that won’t are in the Midwest, or other states that aren’t typically popular destinations for international travelers.

In a typical year, international travelers make up just 7% of D.C. tourists, but they account for 27% of what visitors spend. D.C. wants those international visitors back, but for now it is focusing on domestic tourism recovery.

This week, Destination DC will launch a $2.5 million advertising campaign to jumpstart future travel to the city. The Recovery Advertising Campaign will mostly target potential leisure travelers within a four-hour drive to the District. It will also include targeted advertising nationwide for Americans showing intent to travel.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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