Spring tourists greeted by sequester cutbacks

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Local,DC,Matt Connolly,Metro and Traffic,Fiscal Policy

Major tourist attractions are trimming back as they grapple with federal budget cuts -- just in time for Washington's busy season.

White House tours were canceled as school groups came to Washington over spring break, Arlington House has dropped its extended summer hours, the Smithsonian art museums are planning for fewer exhibits, and lines at local airports are getting longer.

"There is no question that sequestration will slow our progress and place limits on our ability to serve the American people," said Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough. "The significant funding cuts will affect essentially everything we do."

Forced to reduce its budget by $41 million from March through September, the Smithsonian instituted a hiring freeze, cut maintenance funds and will close art exhibits on a rotating basis starting in May.

The agency does not have to close any of its 19 museums and galleries or shorten any visiting hours, though, and officials said they don't expect any fewer visitors.

"We've taken everything that we can out of maintenance and travel and a hiring freeze to avoid a big impact on the public and to avoid furloughing," said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. "I think that it will be very modest."

More visible cuts have come under fire from critics who say agencies are choosing to scale back their most public programs in an effort to politicize the effects of the sequester. Republican officials criticized President Obama for choosing to end White House tours over canceling events like the congressional Christmas party, while National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis was called out for not implementing a hiring freeze in 2011 as other agencies had done.

The Park Service is planning to limit services at sites across the country, with hundreds of campgrounds, visitors centers and memorials seeing shorter hours or outright closures.

In terms of getting visitors in and out of D.C., Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority CEO Jack Potter said airport wait times had increased by as much as 30 minutes at peak hours.

"At [Washington Dulles International Airport], the impact is being felt by international travelers as our volume of passengers increases and Customs and Border Protection adjusts to its new lower staffing levels," he told his board Wednesday. "At [Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport], the impact of sequestration is being felt at security lines, with increased wait times during our busy periods in the early morning."

But despite the cutbacks, local officials don't expect a setback and think that instead, D.C. tourism could be just as lucrative this year as in the past several years. Tourism hit a record 17.9 million visitors in 2011.

Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis, said Washington's tourists aren't likely to be scared away by the inconveniences.

"The research has found that most of these come by car -- they're within a day's driving distance -- with a family," Fuller said. "They're coming to the nation's capital, as distinguished from coming to visit just the Washington Monument or the Capitol."

Once most visitors get through the shortlist of must-see attractions, he added, they turn to other options like Smithsonian museums and other memorials.

"They assume they're just going to walk down the Mall and see things," Fuller said. "The availability of a specific venue isn't going to be a big deterrent."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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