The District set a new tourism record last year with more than 18.9 million visitors, an increase of 5.5 percent from 2011, according to statistics released Tuesday by the city tourism bureau.
Travel to D.C. contributed $4.8 billion to the local economy in 2012, a 3.1 percent increase from the year before, according to Destination DC. That tourism supported more than 75,000 jobs.
"We're doing everything we can to get people to come to the District of Columbia," Mayor Vincent Gray said. "People are really finding this to be the destination of choice."
|The most-visited federal attractions in D.C. last year:|
|National Museum of Natural History||7,600,000|
|National Air and Space Museum||6,800,000|
|National Museum of American History||4,800,000|
|Vietnam Veterans Memorial||4,424,407|
|World War II Memorial||4,161,685|
|Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial||3,738,336|
|Korean War Veterans Memorial||3,267,124|
|Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial||2,764,459|
|Thomas Jefferson Memorial||2,613,131|
|The least-visited federal attractions in D.C. last year:|
|Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site||6,646|
|Anacostia Community Museum||31,168|
|Frederick Douglass National Historic Site||53,314|
|Theodore Roosevelt Island||149,754|
|Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum||162,051|
|Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site||283,232|
|National Postal Museum||321,953|
|National Museum of African Art||353,959|
|Arthur M. Sackler Gallery||359,813|
|LBJ Memorial Grove on the Potomac||371,063|
|Sources: Smithsonian and National Park Service|
The increase comes in the midst of a still-struggling economy and closures of several well-known attractions -- the Washington Monument sports scaffolding thanks to earthquake damage and White House tours have ended thanks to sequestration. Visitors, however, don't generally visit D.C. for one site in particular.
"I plan on going to the National Mall, maybe the Smithsonian - whatever we have time for," said Peter Hermann, who was visiting the District from upstate New York. His wife, Vicki, added that they were happy to see the Washington Monument even if they couldn't go inside.
Abdullah Al Qarni, a Saudi Arabian man on his first trip to D.C., said the sheer number of things to see and do made it OK that not everything was open. "I just want to take pictures of everything," he said. "There are so many sights and so many smiling faces here."
Not focusing solely on a major attraction is typical of many Washington tourists, according to Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.
"Once they get by that short list of must-see items, they sit around and say, 'What should we do next?'" Fuller said. "The availability of a specific venue isn't going to be a big deterrent."
The District has done well, Fuller said, thanks to its countercyclical tourism trends. When the economy is in bad shape, people tend to look for cheaper vacation options. That means the millions of Americans living on the East Coast may increasingly opt for a car ride to D.C., with its multitude of free attractions, over a flight to a more lavish destination.
"When the economy's really tough, we don't get hit anywhere near as bad as Las Vegas or Tahoe," he said. "My expectation is that the hospitality sector, more broadly, is going to do better this year than last year."
That doesn't mean that more expensive attractions didn't feel any pressure the past few years. The International Spy Museum, which charges $20 for an adult ticket, saw attendance dip after a peak in 2008, according to museum spokesman Jason Werden. The museum hit 2008 levels again last year, though, and officials expect 2013 to surpass that mark.
Last year "was a great move forward for us," Werden said. "So far in 2013, we've seen a continued rise in visitors."
Good news for private attractions is good news for D.C., said Destination DC president and CEO Elliott Ferguson. The bureau is also pushing to attract more conventions and business meetings -- there are 16 large conferences planned for next year, according to Ferguson.
"This industry is the second-largest economic generator for the city," he said. "We're moving in the right direction in terms of visitation to Washington."