DC tourism reached 82% pre-pandemic last year; new marketing includes social influencers


While the tourism numbers for D.C. are much better than 2020, there is still a way to go.

While the tourism numbers for D.C. are much better than 2020, there is still a way to go.

That’s according to the latest numbers on visitors and tourism spending from Destination D.C., the tourism marketing arm of the District.

The city has also relaunched its tourism marketing campaign to give the city a fresh look for tourists.

During 2021, D.C.’s domestic visitation outpaced the city’s initial forecast, with 18.8 million tourists, up 44% over 2020 and 82% of the number of visitors in 2019. But the $5.4 billion in domestic tourism spending was still down 34% from pre-pandemic levels.

“The amount of money they had was compromised and they were looking at ways to save money, and that’s the value-added of coming to a city like Washington, with over 100 free things to see and do. People were more frugal because they had to be,” said Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination D.C.

Destination DC will release 2021 international tourism numbers, which only account for 7% of visitors but much higher per-visitor spending, this fall.

After a nearly empty convention center and other meeting venues during the height of the pandemic, business travel has returned this year. There are 19 citywide conventions on the books for 2022 so far — those defined as bringing at least 2,500 hotel room nights to the city — with an estimated 394,000 total room nights booked. In normal times, that would be considered a good number.

In addition, hotels and other meeting venues are seeing a marked increase in bookings for smaller conferences this year.

Those travelers are important to D.C.’s economy.

“Business travel is important because they come during the week,” Ferguson said. “Like international visitors, they spend more and tend to stay a bit longer. We are seeing stronger numbers in terms of the number of conventions.”

The city now estimates the economic impact of of those citywide conventions alone to reach $265 million this year.

Tourism has always been a dependable part of D.C.’s economy, but its image may have become a little stale. That’s why the city’s tourism marketing campaign is called “Experience DC.”

“We love monuments, memorials and museums, but we don’t want to just have a federal image for those who are looking at coming,” Ferguson said. “Nightlife and theater and outdoor activities and sporting events and rooftop activities may not necessarily resonate with the (image) of a lot of visitors.”

The marketing campaign also hopes to attract younger tourists, and the budget includes inviting social influencers to town. That may sound like minimal-impact marketing for older generations, but Destination D.C. says research shows they work.

“They absolutely do. What we are seeing is that younger generations are using different mediums to learn about activities that are happening in cities. So, for a city like Washington, social media influencers are a big deal,” Ferguson said.

The Experience DC marketing campaign targets local, regional and national markets that are showing signs of traveling, and also targets Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ travelers.

One of the strongest improvements from last year’s rebound in tourism was for local employment. Tourism supported almost 58,000 jobs in 2021, a 45% jump over 2020, when most major hotels were largely empty.

Destination DC also launched its inaugural DEI Business Fellowship program earlier this year, supporting businesses owned by people of color, LGBTQ+, women and disabled persons. Fellowships include a free, one-year membership to Destination DC, which provides access to marketing support and network opportunities.

This summer, D.C. welcomes back several in-person events and festivals for the first time since 2019, including Cultural Tourism’s Passport DC and embassy tours, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Capital Pride, Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle, Citi Open, DC JazzFest, and on the weekend of Juneteenth, Pharrell’s Something in the Water music festival will be held on Pennsylvania Avenue.

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