Taking the Tourists

WASHINGTON–“Mommy, what’s going on in there?” asked the little girl as she waited with a group of tourists about to be herded through the Congress. That’s a good question and neither she nor most of the 1.2 million Americans who are guided through the U.S. Congress each year will get much of an answer.

Instead, the tour guides emphasize the architecture and historical events sprinkled with spry advice to the visitors not to be concerned about the absence of most legislators from the floors of the Senate and the House because they are busy elsewhere.

Organized tourism in Washington is big business, very mechanical and unimaginative. This year, about one out of every twenty Americans will visit Washington and spend a total of over $750 million. By 1976, the number of visitors is expected to reach 30 million. Yet this massive consumer industry has received little scrutiny by Congress, the D.C. government and the consumer movement.

In random conversations with tourists in Washington, I have observed more than the usual complaints about traffic congestion, confusion, indifference, price gouging and bad food. There is a widespread feeling that the capital, while awesome in its monuments and famous landmarks, is nevertheless cold and out of reach. It does not invite. It offers itself to be seen uncritically and superficially.

Yet Washington tourists could be given the opportunity to learn, contribute, particiĀ­pate while having fun, relaxing and engaging themselves in new experiences. Pertinent are two of the objectives of the proposed, gigantic National Visitors Center (NVC), scheduled for opening in 1975:

“To inspire the visitor with an appreciation of his Government, including the role he himself must play as a responsible citizen…. and to bring about a clearer understanding of the organization and operation of the Federal Government.”

It is not at all clear how the NVC is going to advance these loftier objectives along with its more routine mission of providing aid and information to travelers. In fact there is little that is clear about Washington, D.C. tourist policies and plans in general.

Remarkably enough, the District of Columbia has no Department of Tourism. This job is pretty much delegated to the Washington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, a private business group that promotes tourism. Congress provides about 40 percent of its funding, with the remaining budget coming from business firms in the metropolitan area.

Although the Visitors Bureau is keenly interested and deeply involved in the planning of the federal government’s National Visitor Center, inquirers receive virtually no details from either organization about the nature of this “partnership.”

The abdication of both the D.C. government and the Congress from the development of a serious and diverse tourist policy that focuses on the quality of visitors’ experiences is plain enough. The alternative would be a tourist policy which gives visitors a diversity of choices and personal involvements that can enrich our democracy and citizen awareness immensely.

Given such daily information and diversity, millions of tourists and their children might wish to avoid the plastic, packaged tours with the memorized guides and strike out on their own initiatives. For example, visitors may wish to drop in on Congressional or regulatory agency hearings dealing with subjects close to their occupations or civic interests back home. They may wish to participate in such hearings, question government officials in their offices or tell them about the problems in their regional offices. They may wish to give support to one or more of the hundreds of national organizations espousing causes with whom they have been in communication.

But for these and many other possible participations, the Washington visitor can find little or no daily calendar. If an activity is not commercially organized to attract
tourists, it is most likely lost to these millions of Americans. And it is most certainly bypassed by the Washington tourist establishment which views tourists as people spending money rather than spending time.

Congress and consumer advocates should begin to think deeply about the broader horizons of creative tourism. Narrow stereotypes need to be replaced with an awareness of the mutual stimulation that can occur when 20 million Americans pass through their nation’s capital every year. The place to start is with a hearing before a responsive Congressional Committee–possibly the Senate Commerce Committee led by Senator Magnuson. Send him your ideas.

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