Destination DC releases Washington’s visitation numbers, discusses industry resilience

After 10 years of growth, total visitation to DC estimated to fall by more than 50 per cent in 2020 before a potential rebound in 2021

Destination DC (DDC), the official destination marketing organization for Washington, DC, today announced that pre-COVID-19, the nation’s capital welcomed 24.6 million total visitors, with 22.8 million domestic visitors (up 4.1 per cent), and 1.8 million overseas visitors (down 7.9 per cent). (Sources: MMGY Travel Intelligence, Travel Market Insights, National Travel & Tourism Office, U.S. Department of Commerce). According to 2019 data from IHS Markit, visitation supported 78,266 jobs across all sectors in Washington, DC, up 2.3 per cent from 2018. Tourism also generated $8.2 billion in visitor spending and $896 million in local tax revenue to the District.

Elliott L. Ferguson, II, president and CEO of DDC, addressed approximately 1,000 attendees virtually at the organization’s annual Marketing Outlook Meeting. He also shared data from Tourism Economics that projects approximately 11 million domestic visitors, down 53 per cent, will travel to the city in 2020. However, if a vaccine is available early next year, and if the recession does not deepen in a significant way, that estimate could rise to 20 million by 2022. By comparison, it took the travel industry 10 years to recover following 9/11.

“We set the bar high with 10 consecutive years of growth before the pandemic changed things for us, and as we can expect, this year won’t look good,” said Ferguson. “The key for us will be securing funds to market our destination when the time is right, adapting our sales efforts virtually and focusing on the safety measures the city and industry have adopted to keep visitor safety in mind.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke about the importance of tourism to the local economy.

“We know that Washingtonians are resilient, and so is our culture and our community. Together, we will bring our tourism and hospitality industries back and better than before,” said Mayor Bowser. “As we continue through our pandemic response and recovery, we remain focused on supporting the local businesses that represent the livelihoods and dreams of Washingtonians. And with Destination DC’s help, and when the time is right, we are ready to remind everyone that DC is still a city with something for everyone – whether you’re here to live, work or play.”

Data from MMGY Global shows that consumers view their personal cars as a safer mode of transportation than travel by air or train. Once advertising resumes, DCC will prioritize the drive market, comprised of more than 50 million people within a four-hour radius, through its Discover the Real DC marketing campaign. The Stay Local DC campaign will target locals in the region, a key market in destination recovery. Shifts in messaging prioritize safety, proximity and masks.

Editorial outreach and content are key, especially until advertising is in place, and DDC’s website,

washington.org, is undergoing a redesign that will launch at the end of the year. The new site will feature captivating video and photography content to better engage consumers and ultimately inspire visitation. Currently, users can find the latest travel status updates and safety measures, what’s open and closed, virtual events and ways to support local businesses on  washington.org.

COVID-19 has greatly impacted tourism spending. According to Tourism Economics, visitor spending was down 83 per cent, or $5.6 billion, for March 8-Aug. 22, 2020 compared to 2019. When it comes to large-scale events and groups booked by DDC, there have been 42 cancellations to date, resulting in a $422 million total loss, not including in-hotel meetings and leisure groups. Thirty-five major events would have taken place in 2020, resulting in a loss of $369 million, and seven events in2021, valued at $53 million. However, during the pandemic,DDC has booked five citywide meetings, including Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s57th national convention in 2025 with an estimated economic impact of $14.5 million. The team is positioning DC to attract combination virtual and in-person events in addition to being a connected city that provides access to local innovators and global leaders.

In 2019, DC’s top 10 overseas markets, in order of visitation, are China, UK, India, Germany, South Korea, France, Australia, Italy, Brazil and Spain. Though overseas visitors only represent 7 per cent of the total number of visitors to DC, international visitors [overseas visitors plus visitors from Canada and Mexico] represented 27 per cent of visitor spending for 2019. According to Tourism Economics, overseas visitation is not expected to fully rebound until 2024. During the down period for international travel, the tourism team has launched a virtual travel agent training program that provides education for group operators to sell DC. The program has trained more than 570 people from 40 countries.

There are new tourism opportunities ahead, in addition to DC’s reopened restaurants, hotels, attractions and museums. On June 5, Mayor Bowser created Black Lives Matter Plaza. DC welcomes a newborn baby panda at the Smithsonian National Zoo on Aug. 21. MLK Libraryreopens Sept. 14 after a three-and-a-half-year renovation. DC Jazz Fest is virtual from Sept. 24-28. Planet Word, dedicated to language arts, opens Oct. 22. Three new memorials are expected, the National Native American Veterans Memorial on Veterans Day, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial on Sept. 17 and the National World War I Memorial park in December. The city will also welcome new brands in the coming months including Viceroy, YOTEL, CitizenM and the city’s first Tribute Portfolio hotel from Marriott International, The Ven at Embassy Row, as well as new hotels AC Hotel Convention Center and Cambria Hotel Capital Riverfront.

In 2021,arts and culture milestones include the 175th anniversary of the Smithsonian; the 125th anniversary of the DC Public Library system; the 100th anniversary of The Phillips Collection; the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Center, 50th anniversary of Amtrakand the 40th anniversary of the National Building Museum. Preparations are also underway for Inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021.