Space Shuttle a Boost to Local Tourism

The arrival of the Space Shuttle Discovery is expected to be a shot in the arm for the Washington area tourism industry, already in high gear as spring brings the usual flocks of tourists from far and near.

While painfully high gas prices may cut into travel in some cases, local boosters are predicting the Shuttle will attract many tourists who live nearby but who haven’t visited the area recently.

“In the wake of gasoline prices that have increased 66 cents (20 percent) since the beginning of the year, many budget-conscious families are looking for someplace closer to home to visit,” noted John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs.

“As in years past, a challenging economy is expected to alter the travel patterns for students and families. The monuments and the museums, which locals take for granted because they are in our backyard, are buoying the local tourism industry. Here’s why: families on a tight budget find they can’t beat the price. After all, admission is free.”

The first waves of visitors came for the National Cherry Blossom Festival and Spring Break, which ended the week after Easter. Now a tsunami of students will continue to surge into the city, from across the region and the nation, for a rite of passage. It’s the class trip and educational field trip in the nation’s capital.

Their numbers are expected to swell with the arrival and the final docking of the Space Shuttle Discovery at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum – Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport today. It’s a reminder that tourism is big business in Washington, D.C., with visitors spending billions of dollars in the city each year, notes Townsend.

Often called “the single largest free-admission museum in the world,” overall attendance is rebounding at the Smithsonian, which attracted more than 30 million visits for two years in a row for the first time since 2001. That’s redounding to the benefit of the city’s tourism industry, notes AAA Mid-Atlantic. In contrast, research shows increasing transportation costs and school district budget reductions “combined with an increased emphasis on standardized-test preparation,” have caused a big drop in the number of school field trips across the country.

Yet the Smithsonian, consisting of a network of 19 museums, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities, appears to be bucking the trend. It generated 30.2 million visitors in 2010, topping the 30 million visitors it attracted in 2009, trumpets the Smithsonian Institute. What’s more, the number of visitors increased 20 percent between 2009 and 2008, attendance figures show, when the Smithsonian posted an attendance of 25.2 million visitors.

Monuments, memorials, and museums remain the biggest attractions for students and visitors to the nation’s capital. Top attractions include:

  • National Park Service–all DC locations (42.7 million in 2010).
  • Smithsonian – all DC locations (30 million visitors in 2010).
  • Smithsonian – Mall locations (24.9 million visitors in 2010).
  • National Park Service –Mall locations (22.8 million in 2010).
  • Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (7 million visitors).
  • National Air & Space Museum (6 million visitors).
  • Lincoln Memorial (4 million visitors).
  • World War II Memorial (4 million visitors).
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial (4 million visitors).
  • National Museum of American History (3 million visitors).
  • National Zoological Park (3 million visitors).
  • Korean Memorial (3 million visitors).
  • FDR Memorial (3 million visitors).
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial (2 million visitors since opening in September 2011).
  • Rock Creek Park (2 million visitors).
  • Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport (1.2 million visitors in 2010).

The Smithsonian is faring better than its counterparts across the country. Some research suggests “there were no more than 8 million K-12 class trips to museums in 2006 – and probably fewer.”  Some museums, which had seen declines in attendance and the number of student field trips are reporting “increased attendance but moderate to very severe economic stress,” the American Association of Museums reported in April.

As the nation’s capital, Washington, D. C. is a unique destination. Remarkably, a staggering 80 percent of all visitors to Washington, D.C. hail from 14 states, including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New  Jersey, New York, Massachusetts,  Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, and California, according to Destination DC and AAA.

Yet with all of its free sites, the nation’s capital is “the ninth most visited U. S. city among domestic travelers,” says the Office of Travel & Tourism Industries at the Department of Commerce.