By Sigurd Neubauer
Washington, D.C. is one of the world’s greatest cities. It is not only a center of power, but its architectural splendor and rich history embody the very best of American culture.
Pre-pandemic, the American capital welcomed in 2019 24.6 million visitors, of which 22.8 million were domestic and 1.8 million international. Their visits generated a total of $8.2 billion for the local economy and supported 79,675 jobs across all sectors, according to Destination DC (DDC).
Destination DC is a non-profit corporation supporting the Washington travel and tourism sector.
The pandemic has significantly impacted Washington’s tourism industry, although there are signs that its popularity with visitors – from tourists to convention participants – are slowly but surely returning to pre-pandemic levels.
“Washington is the eight most visited city by the global community. In the United States, we have so many amazing destinations,” says DDC President and CEO Elliott Ferguson in an interview about the fierce competition his city faces as a major tourism destination.
A 30-year veteran of the travel and hospitality industry, Ferguson reveals that the pandemic has also taught him several lessons, including the need for short-term planning.
“We would like to think that it’s post-Covid, but we must plan for the virus being with us and then there’s Monkeypox,” Ferguson explains as his team continues to assess various variables – whether they are positive or negative – and their potential impact on Washington’s tourism economy.
Short-term planning includes dealing with disruptions pertaining to fewer flights and concerns among Americans with flying because of major airport delays, he explains.
A 30-year veteran of the tourism and hospitality industry, Elliot Ferguson is passionate about promoting Washington
There are some positive developments as well.
“The latest positive development was when the Biden-Administration lifted its requirement in June that international travelers test negative for COVID-19 within a day before boarding a flight to the United States, which has allowed us to focus on them.”
Most international visitors are currently coming from Europe, he says as travel from Asia and from China in particular remains limited. In 2019, Washington hosted 190,000 visitors from China.
Some of challenges his industry faces to court Chinese tourists are related to Beijing’s stringent anti-covid regulations.
“China is our number one market,” Ferguson explains, adding that he hopes that the downturn in Chinese tourism is only temporary.
Increasing U.S.-Chinese strategic competition and bilateral tensions may over time also impact Chinese tourism to Washington.
Meanwhile, Ferguson says that obtaining a U.S. visa can also be a lengthy and complicated process. “As an industry, we’re focusing on making it easier for foreigners to obtain visas as they tend to stay longer and spend more.” He adds that this is particular true for those from the non-visa waiver countries.
The Visa Waiver Program permits citizens of 40 participating countries to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa.
From 2019-2021, Ferguson served as National Chair of the board of directors for the U.S. Travel Association where he guided the association’s efforts to advance policies that facilitate more international and domestic travel.
With international travel still reeling from the pandemic, Ferguson seeks to draw more American visitors to the city.
“We are focusing on drawing people living within a four-hour drive from Washington, which count for some 50 million people.”
With over 175 foreign embassies, Washington offers ample opportunity for cultural exchanges ranging from the legendary annual Swiss Soiree – hosted by the Ambassador of Switzerland – to concerts and music recitals. The capital, unbeknown to many visitors – whether domestics or international – offer world class museums which are completely free of charge. One can even kayak on the Potomac River or take short daytrips to either Virginia’s wine country or Annapolis, the Maryland state-capital.
“Washington is a value-added destination with so many free things to do,” Ferguson says, adding, “We have new hotels and activities ranging from sporting events to outdoor activities which we celebrate and promote.”
Ferguson, who is clearly passionate about his mission, explains that many of the visitors coming to Washington “expect one thing but when they leave the region they’re amazed: Prior to visiting, most people had no idea that Washington has so much to offer,” he marvels.
The DCD chief is also passionate about fostering diversity, including in the tourism and hospitality industry.
In 2020, Washington “only” drew 13 million visitors as the nation grappled with draconian lockdowns and fear of an impending economic collapse over the Covid-19 pandemic.
The following year, 18.8 million Americans visited the city, up 44 percent over 2020 but down 17.5 percent over 2019.
Domestic visitors spent in 2021 $5.4 billion (up 45 percent over 2020 but down 34 percent over 2019) and supported 57,933 local jobs, up 41 percent over 2020 but down 27 percent over 2019.
While Ferguson and his team continue to put safety first as the Covid-19 pandemic remains in place, the number of Americans visiting their capital are increasing.
“We still don’t have the pre-pandemic numbers, but we are optimistic as we see the numbers increase. We have been fortunate to host many festivals this year,” he says. For the upcoming DC Jazz Festival, demand is stronger than it was in 2021, Ferguson adds. “We are very optimistic about the trajectory.”
When it comes to international visitors, Ferguson is not expecting pre-pandemic numbers given the various unresolved challenges pertaining to the aviation industry and staff shortages.
We are focusing on drawing people living within a four-hour drive from Washington, which counts for some 50 million people