THE WASHINGTON POST – One sunny Tuesday at the White House Gifts store, cousins ââvisiting Washington DC from Oregon admired last spring’s cherry blossom mugs. A couple from Florida, who came to town to escape spring break, bought hats and magnets with the Washington skyline.
For the first time in a year, Jim Warlick felt the life in his store.
âOnce you get the second shot, it’s like, my God, we’re going back there. It’s a great feeling, âhe said, lowering his mask for a quick sip of water.
But the store wouldn’t be fully back to normal until tourism intensified enough for Warlick to rehire some of its beloved staff.
This meant that while Warlick was back in action, Nelly Kassembe, one of his former employees, sat at her dining table an hour away, still unemployed and juggling her crying baby with her first grade student needing help with virtual school. She missed her job, missed Warlick and his colleagues, who felt like family after nine years in the apartment building on the corner of G and 15e streets.
âIt’s like I can see where I’m going and all the things I’m learning in the business,â Kassembe said. “Now it’s like everything has stopped and I don’t know what the future will hold for me.”
For a year, the coronavirus pandemic has driven tourists and business travelers away from the nation’s capital. Their absence has bankrupted hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses, skyrocketed unemployment and shattered the vibrancy of a city known as a global destination. And now, with the global economy expected to grow rapidly and visitors slowly return, travel-dependent businesses like White House Gifts may be among the last to make a full recovery. For many district staff, leaders and experts warn that this could mean frustratingly slow return to normal.
Before the pandemic, the district’s population was growing by about 500,000 people per working day, with about a third of that growth attributed to tourists, conventioneers and business travelers, according to the city’s office of the chief financial officer. Over the past 10 years, a growing share of jobs in the Washington area have been in the hospitality industry, with about 14 percent of the city’s workforce coming from hotels, restaurants, venues. entertainment and other related industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This growth helped propel the neighborhood into some of its most successful years, but it also prepared the city and its employees for a sharp fall when the pandemic virtually shut down travel.
The first known case of the coronavirus in the Washington area came two weeks before tourists flocked to the district to take a look at the cherry blossoms in full bloom.
The gift shops stocked up on petal-themed T-shirts and mugs. Tour groups were scheduled back to back with eighth grade classes from across the country. More than 70% of the city’s hotel rooms have been booked in the first week of March.
The loss of the cherry blossom season alone has cost the city about a million visitors, according to Destination DC, the nonprofit that promotes the city. The resulting economic hole has only worsened over the past year, with visitor spending falling $ 5.3 billion from mid-March 2020 to January 2021 compared to the same. period a year earlier, according to Tourism Economics. And major conventions – which, along with business travel, are responsible for nearly 37% of the economic impact of visitors – have almost all been canceled.
âThe district’s economy largely depends on its destination status,â said Yesim Taylor, executive director of the DC Policy Center. “When it goes away, it’s not easy to replace.”
The city’s hotel workforce has borne the brunt of the economic losses generated by the lack of visitors. Washington’s foodservice, accommodation and entertainment industries together lost 36%, or nearly 29,000, of their jobs between December 2019 and December 2020. The number of people employed by hotels in the district alone has fallen. nearly 6,000 during the pandemic. .
Patricia Namyalo, 38, from Arlington, Vancouver, worked for three years as a waitress at the YOTEL hotel in Capitol Hill. March, she said, is usually when business picks up after a dry vacation spell.
When his hotel closed last year, Namyalo was behind on his cable and electricity bills with just $ 700 in his bank account. She has spent the past year unsuccessfully trying to find another job in the industry.
âImagine losing your job when you think you’re going to get back on your feet,â she said.
Namyalo caught the coronavirus in February, still unemployed and without health insurance. She decided not to go to the hospital to avoid high fees and instead endured a three and a half week illness at home.
âI saved every penny I could,â she said, still coughing from the aftermath of the virus. âIt’s like now we have to focus on what we need and completely eliminate what we don’t need. “
It’s been a year since she bought a toy for her eight-year-old daughter.
Local leaders fear the huge losses to the hospitality industry could position the district for a period of patchy recovery where the city’s white-collar workers are rebounding faster than their blue-collar counterparts.
In the past, DC management has highlighted hospitality job postings to show that there are pathways into the middle class for residents without a college degree. But now, a delay in taking over hotels and other travel-related businesses can exacerbate inequalities in Washington by preventing thousands of residents from working as government and other private sector workers settle into a flourishing new normal. .
“The hospitality industry performs a vital function in our economy, and we must see it return not only for the leisure traveler, but also for the business traveler,” said the deputy mayor responsible for planning and John Falcicchio District Economic Development, “This is how we get our residents back to work, recover and then grow again in the District.
Destination DC chief executive Elliott Ferguson said it will likely be more than 18 months before visitor income returns to pre-pandemic levels in the district. He expects a long recovery in part because of the region’s reliance on international travel. Chinese visitors have historically had the greatest economic impact on Washington and may not return in full for years, he said.
As of Feb. 13, the 28-day average occupancy rate for hotels in the district was 44%, according to global hotel data and analysis firm STR. Hotels typically need at least 55% occupancy to break even. And until last weekend, when bookings increased, the BigBus tourist bus company had seen only 3% of its numbers before the pandemic.
Industry executives are also eagerly awaiting the rebirth of the Smithsonian. The 16 free museums and the National Zoo are showcases for tourists and have been closed for over a year. And while district guidelines allow museums to operate, Smithsonian management has yet to set a reopening date.
“It’s a problem in Washington that the Smithsonians aren’t offering an opening date yet,” said Kate Scopetti, president of Go Student Tours. “It discourages a lot of people.”
In an average year, Scopetti’s student tour organization books over 300 group tours to the neighborhood, at least 30 of which are focused around cherry blossoms. This year – as bookings have skyrocketed in jurisdictions with massive re-openings – she didn’t book a single visit to the district in March.
School groups, she said, have started booking for 2022.
Falcicchio also pointed out that the Walter E Washington Convention Center is an integral part of the comeback of the local hospitality industry. The Convention Center, which turned into a field hospital when the pandemic struck, previously hosted everything from international political conferences to presidential inaugural balls. Such expensive events tend to draw hundreds of thousands of people to Washington, selling hotel rooms and injecting business into local restaurants.
In 2020, the district lost $ 370 million in economic impact due to conference cancellations, according to Destination DC. And even with the vaccine rollout underway and the end of the pandemic in sight, the city has already lost 23 major group events in 2021, which would have brought in more than 319,000 hotel room reservations and an economic impact of $ 216 million.
âThe hospitality industry performs a vital function in our economy, and we need to see it return not only for the leisure traveler, but also for the business traveler,â added Falcicchio. âThis is how we get our residents back to work, recover and then grow up again in the neighborhood.
As the weather warms and cherry blossoms dot the city pink, there are signs of hope that visitors will return soon.
Last year, the Cherry Blossom Festival marked one of the most difficult times for the district when, amid an upsurge in coronavirus cases, residents clamoring to see the iconic trees were greeted by local residents. authorities closing all access to the tidal basin to prevent the spread of the virus.
This year, Tuesday night at Tidal Basin could just as easily have been a pre-pandemic summer Saturday. Picnics abounded on the grassy lawns. Hammocks swung between the trees. Children in strollers let their ice run down their chin and bathe above the masks.
Samya Ida, 26, and Anais Leary, 27, came dressed for Instagram with a photo spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial. When the friends, both French students at Georgetown Law School, arrived to attend their first cherry blossom festival, they were shocked by the swarms of people surrounding them.
âWe have a lot of anxiety being here,â Leary said.
“We really weren’t expecting so many people, especially because it’s Tuesday,” Ida added. “But it’s really beautiful and we’re doing our best to keep our distance.”
Masked friends walked towards the glittering waterfront, while a family next to them lowered their masks and smiled for a group photo.