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D.C. aims for more international tourists after signs of pandemic recovery

Visitors on the National Mall. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)
5 min

Destination DC unveiled a $14 million marketing campaign Tuesday to draw more international and cross-country visitors to the nation’s capital, as tourism has shown promising signs of a comeback over the past year.

Elliott L. Ferguson II, president and CEO of Destination DC, said the group plans to market the city “in a different way — perhaps more than we’ve ever done before.”

“We never forget that we have to focus on monuments, memorials and museums,” Ferguson said. “But the key thing for us is to get folks in[to] neighborhoods, and showcase how unique our neighborhoods are as a destination.”

Destination DC previewed the marketing campaign — set to launch Nov. 1 — while recapping significant progress the city showed in drawing more tourists in 2022, an encouraging sign for D.C.’s major hospitality economy that is still recovering from the crisis that stunted travel for more than two years.

Tourism and hospitality have long been integral chunks of D.C.’s local economy — and especially now, as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) seeks to revitalize downtown to strengthen the city’s economic engine after the pandemic emptied out many offices and turned city streets into afternoon ghost towns.

About 21.9 million people visited D.C. in 2022, which is still down 11.7 percent compared with 2019 — but domestic tourism made the strongest rebound, nearing pre-pandemic levels, while tourism’s financial boost to the local economy is in good shape, last year’s data shows.

“We can’t emphasize enough how important our visitors are to our local economy,” Bowser said during Tuesday’s event at Warner Theatre, noting the strong return of domestic tourism and increases in international travelers. “And we are very, very close to being back on track in terms of dollars and cents that our visitors spend and the jobs they support. We have reached pre-pandemic levels.”

The new marketing campaign is themed “There’s only one D.C.,” aiming to not only showcase D.C.’s monuments and museums — the bedrock of its tourism offerings — but also to pique visitors’ interest in neighborhoods or free things to do that they may know less about. The ads “blend what D.C. is known for and its hidden gems,” said Robin A. McClain, Destination DC’s chief marketing officer.

The campaign launch video opens with Virginia Ali, the 89-year-old matriarch of Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, standing outside her restaurant and introducing all the city has to offer.

“We match other world-class cities pound for pound,” she says, against images of Rock Creek Park, the Washington Monument, the Wharf, Nationals Park and Washington National Cathedral. “But nowhere else can compete with our monuments, our museums and memorials, and no other city has as many free things to do. Add it all up, and D.C.’s diversity of experiences is truly unmatched. There’s only one D.C.”

Other shorter videos feature a father and son on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with a nod to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — “There’s only one place you can walk in the footsteps of dreamers” — and people exploring Rock Creek Park. “There’s only one place you can explore America’s oldest urban national park,” a narrator says.

The $14 million marketing campaign was funded in part with dollars from the city’s Tourism Recovery District legislation passed by the D.C. Council in December, which established a temporary 1 percent increase in the hotel tax. That money was intended to go to Destination DC to boost tourism, and Ferguson said the funds will allow for a year-round marketing campaign in locations across the globe — a significant expansion, he said.

Broadcast, digital and social media ads and content will target markets from Atlanta to the East Coast corridor, but also internationally from the United Kingdom to India, with a new focus on Mexico and Brazil, Ferguson said.

“The goal for us is to be more aggressive in those marketplaces that mean the most to us,” he said. “We know that the international market is only 7 percent of the visitation to Washington but 27 percent of the spending. So we want all domestic visitors coming to the city, eating at our restaurants, staying in hotels, using our services. But the international visitor has a larger economic footprint.”

After the coronavirus upended travel, reconnecting with international visitors has been a struggle compared with the domestic boom.

Of the 21.9 million visitors to D.C. last year, 20.7 million were domestic visitors, representing about 91 percent of pre-pandemic levels. And total tourism spending that year topped $8.1 billion — just a tad more than in 2019. But international travel to the nation’s capital is lagging at just 60 percent of what it was before the pandemic, which started in March 2020. Still, last year’s 1.2 million international visitors represent a dramatic increase from 2021’s mere 270,000, and officials hope to hit the gas on that momentum heading into 2024.

Bowser and Destination DC leadership pointed to events such as the Major League Soccer All-Star Game and the upcoming World Culture Festival on the National Mall that have positioned the District as an international destination, with the opening of the Metro Silver Line extension this year making it easier for visitors from overseas to reach the city from Dulles International Airport.

Bowser also expanded on what she described as the importance of professional sports in attracting visitors and boosting the commercial economy. She hinted at her efforts to bring the Washington Commanders to RFK Stadium and described a new arm of her economic development department.

The work includes looking at “how we will get all of our teams in[to] Washington, D.C. — if you know what I mean,” she said.