DC Tourism Saw Rebound Last Year, but Still Lags 2019 Levels
WASHINGTON — Approximately 18.8 million people visited the District of Columbia last year, contributing some $5.4 billion to the local economy, but the numbers, released Wednesday as part of the city’s annual Travel Rally at Union Market, still remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels.
Overall, there were 44% more visitors in the city in 2021 compared with 2020, but their numbers still fell 17.5% short of 2019 levels, city officials said, citing statistics from MMGY Travel Intelligence, IHS Markit, Travel Market Insights, the National Travel & Tourism Office and the U.S. Department of Commerce.
In climbing to $5.4 million, visitors’ spending was up 45% over 2020, but down 34% when compared with 2019.
Prior to the pandemic in 2019, the District of Columbia welcomed 24.6 million total visitors with 22.8 million domestic and an additional 1.8 million international travelers, who generated $8.2 billion for the local economy.
Translated into jobs, 2021’s relative surge in tourism activity supported 57,933 jobs, city officials said. However, that number remained well below the 79,675 jobs tourism and business travelers supported in 2019.
Wednesday morning, city officials including Mayor Muriel Bowser, representatives of Destination DC, the nonprofit that markets the district as a global travel destination and several of its national and local partners unveiled efforts to attract more visitors back to the city.
“D.C.’s tourism industry recovery is underway, as domestic visitation outpaced our initial forecast, but visitor spending and jobs created through tourism are not recovering as quickly,” said Destination DC CEO Elliott L. Ferguson II as the event got underway.
“I thank Mayor Bowser and the city council for recognizing that the key for us to make up ground begins with additional funding to market our destination. Welcoming back business meetings and overseas travelers are also crucial factors to recovery,” he said.
Ferguson noted that prior to the pandemic visitors came to the District of Columbia for a variety of reasons, including work, vacations, and on school and organizational field trips.
“And while they were here they stayed at our hotels, shopped at local businesses, and ate at our restaurants,” he said. “For us, that means jobs for our residents and it means revenue that we can re-invest into our neighborhoods.”
Bowser said the city is now focused on making sure people know the district “is open and eager to bring the tourists back.”
“While tourism is good for our economy, this is also about bringing people back together and enjoying all the things that make living in and visiting our beautiful city a great experience,” she said.
Destination DC’s Travel Rally is held annually during the U.S. Travel Association’s National Travel and Tourism Week, designated as a time to celebrate the importance of travel to communities across the U.S.
According to the association, prior to the pandemic, travel supported one in 10 U.S. jobs.
Nationally, international inbound spending remains down 78% from pre-pandemic levels and domestic business travel spending is 56% below 2019 levels. Total overseas visitation to the U.S. will likely not reach 2019 levels until 2025, the organization said.
“Travel is crucial to driving an economic and jobs recovery here in D.C. and in communities around the country, but such a recovery is only possible if all sectors of travel come back quickly and evenly,” said U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow.
“International and business travel, in particular, have been slow to return, and today’s rally highlights the need to advance policies to more broadly reopen travel and restore all components of this industry,” he added.
Officials at the Travel Rally noted that 19 major conventions have been booked in the city, each of which being defined as a meeting that will bring 2,500 room nights to the city at their peak.
In total the conventions booked to date in 2022 are expected to result in an estimated 394,000 room nights and an estimated economic impact of more than $265 million.
In addition, the summer is looking particularly promising with the resumption of many in-person events and festivals for the first time since 2019.
These include Cultural Tourism’s Passport DC and embassy tours, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Capital Pride, Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle, Citi Open, DC JazzFest and a new event, Pharrell’s Something in the Water music festival, which will be held on Pennsylvania Avenue over Juneteenth weekend.
To keep the momentum going, Destination DC’s Experience DC advertising campaign, which first debuted in summer 2021, re-launched this April.
The advertising identifies potential travelers based on research of what they’re looking for in Washington, D.C., including cultured fans (targeting sports and culture enthusiasts), foodies, historophiles and families. The audience strategy is also targeting Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ travelers.
Destination DC also launched an inaugural DEI Business Fellowship program in January 2022 to support local businesses owned by people of color, LGBTQ+, women and disabled persons. Fellows receive a free, one-year membership to DDC, which provides access to marketing support and networking opportunities.