Washington, D.C.'s Tourist Trap

The District of Columbia attracts millions of visitors every year, but they don't often venture far beyond the National Mall.

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Reuters

Every spring, hundreds of thousands of tourists arrive in Washington, D.C., with a singular destination: the pink cherry blossom-lined Tidal Basin that serves as the focal point of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. This year, the event's centennial celebration, D.C.'s tourism boosters hope visitors will also take some time to visit a labyrinth of weeds, a light installation designed to attract hordes of insects, and a performance art piece involving an artist wrapping himself with three grades of postage stamps and asking to be mailed at a local post office.

These unusual attractions are all part of 5x5, the District of Columbia's latest effort to lure tourists off the National Mall and into the city's neighborhoods. The city gave five curators $100,000 each to bring five temporary public art pieces to Washington. The exhibit is on display from March through August, scattered throughout the city.

"Tourists don't know about the truly rich communities we have outside downtown," says Mary Beth Brown, the public art coordinator for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which is co-sponsoring 5x5 along with the Cherry Blossom Festival. "We wanted to excite people and get them out and exploring."

Getting people out and exploring is a perennial problem for the nation's capital. Visitors here tend to come for the attractions you'd expect: the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the monuments and Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall. Unfortunately for the city, those places are all clustered together in the same general area, removed from neighborhoods where the District of Columbia's roughly 600,000 residents actually live.

That's a problem, because while tourists spend billions of dollars in Washington every year, too many of the city's restaurants, bars, and arts venues see not much, if any, of that money.

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Which attractions and neighborhoods a city chooses to promote is a delicate business. As Bill Baker, author of Destination Branding for Small Cities, explains, cities have to maintain a simple message that highlights their biggest strengths. "If you go with those hidden or secondary attractions, you won't be able to break through," he says. "You really are competing with visitors for their disposable time."

Once you get people to your city, you can try to sell them on the hidden gems (Baker suggests walking tours organized around a theme). But that works best for people who already care to know more. How do you convince visitors that there's more to see?

Destination DC, the city's tourism bureau, is trying to answer that question. In 2005, they helped launch the Circulator, bright red buses that travel back and forth between the city's densest corridors (one route, for example, runs from Union Station to Georgetown; another goes from downtown up to Adams Morgan, home to a popular nightlife district). Destination DC also runs promotional ads with photos of lesser-known museums (one features the Kreeger, a quirky modern art museum that once housed the President of Geico) and sponsor visits by foreign journalists (hoping they'll return home to write a piece that could be headlined something like 'There's More to D.C. Than the White House.')

Then there's the layout of their website, which includes proposed visitor itineraries. Day one covers what you'd expect: the White House, the Newseum, the National Portrait Gallery. But day two proposes that visitors trek up to U Street, a neighborhood famous for its African-American cultural history. Visitors who stay a little longer are advised to visit the National Cathedral, way up in residential Ward 3.

"The perception is that we are the seat of power for the U.S.," says Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC. "They may not know us for all the other hip and sexy reasons."

It's not all that clear how effective any of these measures have been. Washington hosts an estimated 17 million visitors a year; visitor spending topped $5 billion in 2011. But exactly where those visitors went, and whether they ever made it to Shaw or the Southwest Waterfront or Brookland, is not something the city can easily track.

But maybe selling neighborhoods straight to tourists is missing the point. The real goal, argues Pat Wheeler of nonprofit Cultural Tourism DC, is to convince locals that the District's history, culture, and ethnic enclaves are worth a visit. "A large percentage of the people who come to visit are visiting friends or family," she says. "And they say, 'OK, cousin Amanda, where are you going to take us today?'"

Wheeler's organization hosts regular walking tours of historic D.C. neighborhoods that are aimed not at tourists, but at residents. Part of the idea, she explains, is that the next time participants have out of town guests, they'll remember what they saw and be inspired to take their visitors someplace a little less obvious. And maybe that restaurant or bar will then become a place where the residents themselves will decide to go on their own. In time, they could become the opposite of a tourist. They'll be a regular.

Photo credit: Gary Cameron/Reuters

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.