Nearly 18 million tourists visited the nation's capital last year, the District's best tourism totals since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks devastated the industry a decade ago, tourism officials announced Tuesday.
The early visitor totals include 16.1 million Americans who came to Washington last year, an increase of 4 percent over 2010's domestic total of 15.5 million, according to the city's tourism bureau, Destination DC. The international
tourist business is expected to bump up the total to nearly 18 million visitors, although the final international figures will be released by the tourism bureau later this month.
Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the nation's capital hosted 20 million visitors in a year.
|Capital tourism is back|
|Domestic visitors||All visitors||Spending|
|* Estimated total; number not finalized Source: Destination DC|
"There was a slump, but there was also no consistency," said Elliott Ferguson, the bureau's president and CEO, of the years after the attacks. "Now we're not only seeing growth, but it's in the right [international] brackets."
Total visitor spending, including the estimated spending by international tourists, reached $6 billion, up 6.2 percent over 2010.
The increase in visitors to the District also helped boost the hospitality industry as a whole. The second-largest employer in the city behind the federal government, the industry gained 11,500 jobs last year for a total of 76,000 people now employed in hospitality.
Ferguson said more international tourists, who traditionally have spent more than their American counterparts, have not slowed their spending, despite economic turmoil in Europe. That's because tourists from Asia and South America -- particularly China, India and Brazil -- have been stepping up their travel to the U.S.
The surge has prompted the travel industry to lobby for easier access to the U.S. for tourists from countries who currently have to get a visa to visit the United States. Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said his industry group marked a victory when the State Department was able to reduce the average wait time for a Chinese visitor visa from more than 100 days to two weeks this year.
Making it easier for these groups to visit the U.S. will benefit the country's tourism industry significantly, he said, and Washington stands to gain heavily as the nation's capital.
"We're going to get $5 billion out of Asian Pacific countries annually," Dow said. "If we can't figure out how to capitalize on that, it's going to go elsewhere."