News & Politics

National Parks Bring Millions of Tourism Dollars to DC When the Government Is Open

The District's economy gets more tourist spending from visitors to national parks than anywhere else, but as the shutdown drags on, that money could dry up.

These increasingly familiar signs are bad omens for Washington's tourism industry. Photograph by Flickr user John Sonderman.

Tourists headed to DC’s national parks spend about $4.5 million while in town, according to a new analysis by the National Parks Conservation Association—at least, on an ordinary October day. But with the government shutdown continuing, communities here and around more than 300 sites around the country controlled by the Park Service are starting to feel the economic pain of having parks, monuments, and other federal landmarks closed.

Nationally, communities that are home to NPS sites stand to lose $35 million every day the shutdown drags on, according to the analysis, which was first reported by the Washington Post. Dozens of states take in millions of dollars on a daily basis from tourists passing through national parks, but the effect is felt greatest in DC.

The National Parks Conservation Association’s report was assembled from a 2011 study on local spending around national park tourism and averaging October visitor traffic over the past two years. (With the NPS website offline due to the shutdown, that data set is not readily available.) In 2011, researchers at Michigan State University found that the District’s reaps about $1.025 billion in tourist spending in connection with trips to NPS sites. (Only California takes in more.)

Virginia with destinations like Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Highway, is also one of the biggest potential losers, with visitors usually spending more than $2 million a day.

Tourism is the District’s second-largest industry. (Government, whose spigot is also choked off, is No. 1.) Destination DC, the city’s tourism bureau, says the shutdown’s economic impact wasn’t felt right away, but now the group is bracing for a downturn. Visitors who arrived last week wound up spending their time and money at privately run museums—the Newseum got twice its normal foot traffic the day the shutdown started. But Theresa Belpusi, Destination DC’s vice president for tourism, says her group is only beginning to review the tolls the shutdown will exact on hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.

A fuller picture of how the shutdown is harming DC’s tourist-driven economy should emerge later this week when hotel booking numbers are released. “We’re trying to figure out what the future will hold,” Belpusi says.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.