By Raymund Lee Flandez
ANNAPOLIS – Last fall, it was terrorist attacks. This autumn, it’s the sniper attacks. The greater Washington tourism industry is taking a hit from highly publicized crime news.
Hotels in Montgomery County have become some of the first indirect casualties to the mounting concerns about the area’s sniper shootings.
Organizers for the Washington Area Girls Soccer League called off a major tournament last weekend, costing hotels nearly $400,000, according to the county’s tourism office.
“Earlier in the week we started to hear that there’s some postponements coming in from groups,” said Kelly Groff, the executive director of the county’s Conference and Visitors Bureau. “I think the most significant was the WAGS cancellation.”
The tournament would have featured the nation’s top club teams playing in venues in Virginia and Maryland, including the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown where several finals were to be held.
Organizers canceled over discomfort about the girls’ safety at the outdoor event.
Such fears are bitter pills for state tourism officials, who have noticed a 1 percent drop in travel spending, after early predictions hinted at a recovery exceeding last year’s figures.
The aftermath of Sept. 11 and the resultant staggering economy still kept increases in check, they said.
Although it’s too soon to determine the total impact, the sniper attacks have compounded the problem.
The hotel reservation numbers do not include the loss of additional dollars usually generated in business activity by tournament visitors, such as shopping.
Still, hotel officials said that cancellation was a unique circumstance born of people’s heightened fears.
In two weeks, nine people were shot dead in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, including a tourist from Philadelphia pumping gas for his trip home. A 13-year-old boy was critically wounded entering his Bowie middle school.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore, which is hitting its peak season, has received a few school-trip cancellations, said spokeswoman Andrea Butler. Typically, about 60 school groups visit the aquarium each week during the fall.
“We believe it’s directly related to the snipers because they’re saying that they plan to visit this fall,” Butler said. “They plan to rebook.”
In Montgomery County, hotels report individual guests postponing their visit to the area because of the sniper shootings, Groff said, but a major cancellation, such as the soccer competition, is not expected.
In Bethesda, Residence Inn by Marriott’s 50 reservations, worth about $13,000, for tournament players were canceled, said Roger Kruse, general manager. It was the first time players and organizers backed out of their commitment in 28 years, he said.
“We’re being sensitive to it as a hotel,” Kruse said of the sniper situation. Although the loss was a surprise, he said, they’re making plans to rebook the rooms.
For Ed Proenza, general manager of the DoubleTree Hotel in Rockville, the loss was $50,000 for 100 rooms for three nights. And, last Saturday, a high school reunion was supposed to bring 200 guests, but only half showed up.
“It’s unfortunate, but, of course, it’s unavoidable,” said Proenza, who understood this fear. “People didn’t want to travel and were apprehensive.”
In Prince George’s County, where tourism brings in about $600 million a year, major attractions are strengthening security, said Matt Neitzey, executive director of the county’s tourism office.
“There’s a heightened concern among our tourism and hospitality industry partners here,” he said.
Six Flags America in Lanham and FedEx Field in Landover have tightened safety standards, much like the response after Sept. 11, he said. The amusement park is preparing for big crowds for its annual Halloween-themed “Fright Fest,” and the Washington Redskins organization is reassuring fans with added personnel.
Some tour groups, however, have rescheduled trips, he said.
“This is different than what we dealt with last year,” Neitzey said. “Once this individual, or individuals, is apprehended, we can put this behind.”
County and state officials said it’s too early for plans to buffer potential tourism losses.
Officials at the Maryland Office of Tourism Development declined to comment about any statewide effects, saying such speculation is “inappropriate” and would be “completely anecdotal.”
Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Tourism Council and the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association, has not heard anything out of the ordinary from businesses catering to tourist travel.
Baltimore/Washington International Airport and the Baltimore tourism office said sniper publicity has not had any impact.
“We want to make sure our community is safe,” Groff said. “Until we catch this person, many of us can’t think beyond what’s next. We’re still in the middle of this event.”