TOURIST SEASON IN THE NATION'S CAPITAL

Washington’s Visitor Friendliness


Washington, D.C. by most accounts is America’s gayest city.    It’s also, according to many tourists, America’s friendliest city.  Is there a connection between the two?  While I would love to show that there is a statistically significant correlation between gayness and friendliness here in the nation’s capital, I’ve not found any data to confirm that theory.  Could it also be because DC is the most liberal city in the country?  Who knows?  Of course if I were a Tea Bagger I wouldn’t need any supporting facts or corroborating data but being, as I am, someone who actually believes in science, hungers for factual information in the age of Rush, and have a penchant for relying on personal experience to form my views rather than Biblical passages, I’m not inclined to engage in specious speculation over this issue.  

But I digress.  It’s the start of the tourist season here in your Nation’s Capital, the time of year when troops of Boy Scouts by the thousands, Middle Americans and their families, and busloads of Chinese, Japanese, German and elderly Americans descend upon us in droves.   

This morning’s Washington Post contains yet another letter to the editor extolling our virtuous attention and copious assistance to our visitors whether they call Little Rock or San Francisco home or have come to see the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian from Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi. Personally, I’ve been assisting tourists here for over 30 years. And I love it!  Apparently so do many Washingtonians, even though we are taxed without representation and never call National Airport by its official name, given the number of letters and reviews by tourists extolling our warmth and helpfulness I see published everywhere.  After all, this is the capital of America and we are very conscious of our roles as amateur ambassadors in representing the best of America to our visitors. 

Plus, we understand just how important our 18 million annual visitors are to our local economy.  They spend about $6.2 billion dollars here each year schlepping around the Mall, the Capitol Building and Georgetown, a sum second only to Federal Government’s contribution to the city’s coffers.  But of those 18 million visitors, it seems that a significant portion of them do get lost.  Yes, our street system with its four quadrants can be confusing to the newcomer.  “Can you tell us where the National Mall is?” asked one middle aged female tourist from Nebraska a few years ago.  I had just crossed K Street on my way to a doctor’s appointment on 19th Street and ran into her and her group of fellow travelers on the sidewalk studying one of those useless tourist maps that proliferate not only here but around the world.  “Sure” I answered in my best “I will take gladly care of you” smiley voice.  “Just keep walking straight down 19th Street" I replied  "and in about 5 blocks you’ll come to Constitution Avenue.” I was pointing to the south with my outstretched left arm as I said this knowing from experience that such visual cues are helpful.  


“The Mall is just across on the other side.  You can’t miss it.” 

“Oh, thank you so much!” said the woman all smiles of gratitude.  

A pause.

“Do they have good shops there?” she asked.

It took me a second or two to register what she was asking and not wanting to embarrass her (perhaps souring the group and their respective families from visiting DC and spending money here ever again) I replied in my most diplomatically correct manner thusly:

“Oh yes, some of the Smithsonian museums have very good shops.” I thought it was the perfect response. 

She looked at me a bit quizzically but then thanked me again and the ladies began a brisk, confident walk down 19th Street toward the Mall.   

So despite the ignorance her question revealed (let’s just call it “lack of information” rather than the more prejudicial “ignorance” shall we?) I made no judgment call thinking that yes, they might be disappointed that the Mall did not house America’s most fabulous collection of retail stores and upscale boutiques, but hey, maybe they would learn something and enjoy themselves anyway.  

Now lest you think I’m a goody-two-shoes every day of my life assisting lost tourist souls, there was that day as I was schlepping north up 16th Street during the start of what turned out to be one of our more significant blizzards – I think it was February – when one of those huge tourist busses pulled to a stop right next to me.  I was walking in the street since the sidewalks were already several inches deep in snow while the streets had been salted the night before.   The wide bus door opened – almost sweeping me off the pavement – and the driver stated somewhat sheepishly that he was lost and did I know the way to the Mall. (Again, the elusive Mall.) They were late for a rally.  So I glanced backwards – looking south in the direction of the White House and the Mall about seven blocks away - in preparation to do my shepherding of lost tourist souls thing – when I noticed the banner on the side of the bus.  It was a giant “Right To Life – National DC Rally” placard done in huge red, white and blue lettering .  “Hmmmmmmm……..  So they are lost,” I thought “in more ways than just the geographical.”  Glancing back to the north, the direction the bus was already heading, it took me a nano second to decide.  “Sure” I smiled looking back to the driver.  “You’re heading in the right direction.   Just keep straight on for maybe three miles or so and you’ll run right into it.”  They would run into the Maryland line and out of DC.    

The driver grinned.  “Thanks buddy.  The streets here in DC are so confusing.  I don’t know how you get anywhere without getting turned around.  And I can hardly see with all this snow.”

“Yes I know,” I replied as he reached for the handle.  “But don’t worry.   You’re headed in the right direction.”  I waved to him and the rest of the “rallyers” as he closed the door.  I have to admit I had a feeling of deep satisfaction as I watched the Right To Life bus head up 16th Street in the rapidly worsening snow storm receding farther and farther from its target destination. 

I just love guiding folks to their rightful destinations.  


PS: The Washington Monument re-opened yesterday, earthquake repairs having been completed.  

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