There's no telling when this shutdown will end — especially since President Donald Trump mentioned "months and even years" on Friday — so the travel industry may need to prepare for a long-term impact.
Normally at this time, Steve McCorkle should be fielding reservations for the upcoming year at the bed and breakfast near Yosemite National Park where he is innkeeper.
The Blackberry Inn Bed and Breakfast in Central California is closed until March 15, and McCorkle is still waiting for the emails and calls to start rolling in as a partial government shutdown stretches into its second week, rendering some parts of Yosemite inaccessible. It’s just the latest blow after fire forced the closing of Yosemite Valley over the summer.
“The phones are not ringing, the email inquiries not there in the mornings and the reservations for 2019 are not coming in as expected,” McCorkle said in an email this week. “It is getting more and more difficult to operate a hospitality business in this area, and others, I’m sure.”
Disagreements over border wall funding led to the shutdown on Dec. 22, and lawmakers and President Donald Trump have failed to reach a deal since Congress returned to work Thursday. On Friday, Trump reportedly threatened to keep the government closed for “months or even years,” the Washington Post reported.
From hotels to tour operators, activities, destination marketers, restaurants, and gift shops, the partial shutdown is reaching into the U.S. travel industry’s nooks and crannies, even as essential services such as air traffic control, transportation security, and train service remain in place.
Multimillion Dollar Hit
The U.S. Travel Association hit Capitol Hill this week — as new members were being sworn in and receptions abounded — with an economic argument for a resolution. Jonathan Grella, the group’s executive vice president of public affairs, said preliminary estimates suggest a hit of $100 million a day in economic output for travel.
That includes $50 million in direct domestic travel spending and more than $50 million in indirect or induced output as a result of park closures and a standstill of government travel and other government-connected business travel.
“While the impasse that we’re currently in is not surrounding travel, it certainly affects our industry quite a bit; we’re caught in the crossfire, if you will,” Grella said. “The shuttered national parks mean millions of visitors and lots of lost revenue … and that’s an understandable concern, real impact, real strain, real fallout for us.”
Unlike the 2013 shutdown, there is no blanket order to completely shutter national parks. Under a contingency plan established before a brief shutdown in early 2018, national parks are able to remain open with reduced staff, though visitors centers, tours, and many services are cut off. A patchwork of solutions are in place to keep parks and other national sites as accessible as possible, from temporary state funding to nonprofit organizations pitching in. Some volunteers are even cleaning toilets.
Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association, said an estimated third of 400-plus sites are completely closed. That include parks, historic areas, monuments, cultural sites, and other facilities that are part of the U.S. National Park Service. Others are partially open, somewhat accessible, or running almost as normal.
“The problem is the websites aren’t being updated, so when people arrive at parks, they aren’t sure what they’re going to face,” Douce said.
In a blog post, the association said that on a typical day in January, 425,000 visitors to the park system spend roughly $20 million during their trips. The conservation group estimates the park service is losing $400,000 a day in entrance fees. Staffers are sharing those numbers to urge lawmakers to support a bill to reopen the government passed this week by in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is now led by Democrats.
In the meantime, the nonprofit group recommends that people not visit parks until they are “fully staffed and safe to visit.” According to Outside Magazine, one person died after a fall at Yosemite National Park on Dec. 25; another visitor broke a leg on Dec. 24 at Big Bend National Park in Texas, CNN reported.
The National Tour Association has moved into “shutdown management” mode, providing information via its online community to tour operators, suppliers, and destinations and encouraging them to work together to come up with solutions.
“The shutdown is an enormous issue for our members, as three-fourths of our tour operators package U.S. national parks — both for domestic travelers as well as international visitors — and hundreds of additional members rely on visitors that parks and monuments bring to their areas,” NTA President Pam Inman said in a statement.
A spokesman said that January is a slow time for group travel, but operators are growing concerned about potential cancellations.
The D.C. Challenge
For Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, the biggest priority is helping visitors who haven’t canceled their trips plan around the shutdown. The Smithsonian’s 17 museums, galleries, and the National Zoo in the area are all closed, but the tourism organization is reminding everyone who will listen that many other institutions are operating as normal — and some are offering discounts.
“The most important thing for us is in terms of controlling the messaging of what people can see and do in the city,” Ferguson said.
Destination DC has a prominent note on its website and has blanketed social media with the hashtag #DCIsOpen, listing alternatives and promoting nightlife, restaurants, and entertainment.
“If you can’t do ice skating on the National Mall, where can you do it?” Ferguson said. “There are a lot of other options in the area, and that’s what we’re navigating them through.”
January isn’t peak tourism or convention season, Ferguson said, and so far the tourism body isn’t getting a lot of calls from people saying they’re staying away.
Canden Arciniega, owner of DC by Foot and Free Tours by Foot, is getting a few emails a day asking for guidance about what is open and closed during the shutdown. The answer isn’t so easy because of the partial nature of the closure.
“Normally when shutdown is looming, I know that XYZ will be closed until it is over,” she said in an email. “This time, we just don’t know.”
The company has only had to tweak one tour for the shutdown, shortening a four-hour National Mall and Tidal Basin excursion because of a lack of restroom facilities (and warning participants to find other options before the tour).
“As with every shutdown, we’ve lost a lot of business from people cancelling their trips to DC,” Arciniega said. “Even though our tours are still running, they don’t want to come if the Smithsonians are closed.”
While the hit isn’t that bad — it’s a slow time of year — she said she is concerned that and extended shutdown would mean losing out on Martin Luther King Day holiday traffic.
“The biggest time consumption right now is trying to predict how long this will last, what else might close or reopen, and convince people who are planning to come in late January that they still should come,” Arciniega said.
Business Travel Impact
During the 2013 shutdown, the Global Business Travel Association polled members to get a sense of how they expected their operations to be affected.
At the time, 40 percent said they had experienced negative repercussions, from cancelled meetings and business opportunities to uncertainty to cancelled bookings. The organization plans to do a similar poll next week if the shutdown hasn’t ended.
Michael McCormick, GBTA’s executive director and chief operating officer, said nothing good comes from the uncertainty that surrounds the shutdown.
“It always has a negative impact, short-term and medium- to long-term as well,” he said.
He added: “The longer it goes on, the more uncertainty it creates, and uncertainty is bad for business.”
McCormick said that while the industry has grown more accustomed to such disruptions, that’s not a good thing.
“Both sides in this seem emboldened that they’re right or winning,” he said. “The reality is the people losing are the public and, certainly, businesses.”
That rings true with McCorkle, the Yosemite-area innkeeper.
Late this week, he drove through the park and said business was very slow. While he recognized the impact of last year’s fire and its global coverage could not be undone, McCorkle said he hoped there was a fix for the current impasse.
“I sure hope someone in Washington will tell ‘Dummy’ that he is hurting the very people that he purports to champion!” he wrote.
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Photo credit: The 18th Century Garden, part of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, is shown closed on Dec. 23 due to the government shutdown. National Parks Conservation Association / Flickr