U.S. shutdown turns Washington into ghost town during quiet travel season

FILE PHOTO: A skier makes his way toward the U.S. Capitol, on Day 24 of the government shutdown in Washington D.C., U.S., January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – Washington hotels have cleared out entire floors. Restaurants have considered taking out loans to stay open. Phones have stopped ringing at tour companies.

In the nation’s capital, where more than 20 million tourists typically visit each year, the longest government shutdown in U.S. history has threatened businesses that depend on the patronage of government workers and the attraction of federal monuments and museums to bring in tourists.

“It definitely feels like the phone should be ringing more,” said Adam Plescia, owner of Custom Tours of DC. “I think people are apprehensive about booking in the near future.”

January is typically a slow month for DC tourism, a lull between the holiday season and the March cherry blossom festival.

But the quiet is deafening this year, as the government shutdown pushes into its 26th day over U.S. President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

All 17 Smithsonian museums in the city are closed. The White House is closed to tourists. The outdoor monuments on the National Mall, while still accessible, might have less appeal among the overflowing trash cans and litter that the National Parks Service has not collected since being furloughed.

Yohannes Zekele, who operates van and walking tours of the city as the owner of Washington DC Legend Tours, said he has not received calls for tour bookings in days. He often gives tours to lobbyists or professionals who visit the capital for conferences, but those people have few reasons to visit while many federal agencies remain shuttered.

“That’s a major impact,” Zekele said.

To be sure, the shutdown failed to keep all tourists away but at least some of those who came to the capital were disappointed.

Sharmayne Whitter, 38, a teacher from Birmingham, England, braved the winter weather to take a photo with a friend outside the White House. Washington was the last stop on a four-week road trip along the East Coast that was planned before she found out about the shutdown. Whitter said she blames Trump for the missed sightseeing opportunities.

This a once in a lifetime opportunity, so he’s kind of limited our chances to experience America as it should be and the beautiful land that it is. So because of his choices, he’s kind of spoiling it for the rest of the world. she said. Local restaurants have seen a “drastic decline” in business due to fewer tourists and furloughed workers choosing not to dine out, according to Kathy Hollinger, President and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

“In attempts to not shutter completely, restaurants have had to reduce hours, shifts, and some are considering being open one less day a week, because there isn’t enough business,” Hollinger said in a statement.

The local restaurant community had suffered an average 20 percent drop in sales over the course of the shutdown, with some restaurants reporting a drop of as much as 60 percent drop, Hollinger said.

Some restaurant institutions have considered taking out loans and some hotels have had to clear out entire floors, according to a survey conducted by the Restaurant Association.

Hotel occupancy was down more than 8 percent the week of Dec. 30 to Jan. 5 compared with the same week last year, according to the most recent findings by Destination DC, an independent tourism marketing organization.

Destination DC compiles visitation statistics annually, so it is too soon to measure how much the shutdown has affected the local tourism industry, Destination DC spokeswoman Danielle Davis said.

In 2017, 22.8 million tourists visited the city and spent $7.5 billion.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Katharine Jackson; Editing by Frank McGurty and Susan Thomas)

Statue of Liberty to reopen; shutdown keeps other parks, monuments closed

The Statue of Liberty is seen through fencing from a ferry dock following a U.S. government shutdown in Manhattan, New York, U.S., January 21, 2018.

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Statue of Liberty will reopen on Monday even if the U.S. government shutdown extends into the work week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Sunday, vowing to use state funds to keep the landmark monument in operation.

Dozens of other national parks and monuments were expected to remain partially or entirely closed after Congress failed to agree on a spending plan to keep the government running past a Friday midnight deadline.

In the hours leading up to the shutdown, the Trump administration worked on ways to keep hundreds of parks open without staff in an effort to avoid public anger, although it was unclear which ones would close.

“Not all parks are fully open but we are all working hard to make as many areas as accessible to the public as possible,” U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said on Twitter on Saturday.

The hit-or-miss closures forced tourists and residents alike to alter their plans. In lower Manhattan, where ferries normally embark for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, out-of-town visitors expressed frustration that the site was closed.

And San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman posted a photo of a “closed” sign outside Cabrillo National Monument on Twitter.

“I had planned to do some tide pool repeats to get some hill work in on my bicycle ride this morning,” she wrote, referring to a local bike route. “Change of plans.”

The National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, estimated that one-third of the 417 national park sites were shuttered, “including places like the Statue of Liberty, presidential homes, and other historic and cultural sites primarily made up of buildings that can be locked.”

Yellowstone National Park, a 3,500-square-mile (9,065 square km) wilderness located mostly in Montana, remained open but offered limited services, with visitor centers closed and park rangers absent. The association warned that the lack of staff could pose dangers to visitors.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a private company that manages lodges, concessions and restaurants in numerous national parks including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, Rocky Mountain and Zion, said they will remain open during the shutdown.

In Washington, the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo will remain open through Monday, using prior-year funds. In a tweet, the Smithsonian said it will update its status beyond Monday “as soon as we know.” But in Philadelphia, visitors were turned away at the Liberty Bell.

During the last shutdown in 2013, a number of governors used state funds to keep parks open, including the Statue of Liberty, which at the time cost $61,600 per day to reopen.

At a news conference at the Statue of Liberty, Cuomo said the site generates tourism revenue, adding that the monument serves as a welcoming beacon to immigrants arriving in the United States.

“We don’t want to lose the income,” he said. “And symbolically, you can shut down the government, but you can’t shut down the Statue of Liberty.”

In Arizona, Republican Governor Doug Ducey committed state funds to keep the Grand Canyon open, including trash removal, snow plowing and public restrooms, according to Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak.

“We recognize it’s a huge economic attractor and has a big impact not just on rural areas around the Grand Canyon but the state as a whole,” Ptak said, adding that the expected cost is around $100,000 per week.

But in South Dakota, home of Mount Rushmore, Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard has said he would not take any action to keep the monument open during a shutdown.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jeffrey Benkoe)