Counting up the travel pain of gov’t shutdown
Closed parks, ruined trips, and hotels and travel businesses losing money — that’s what gridlocked Congress has caused.
Tribune Content Agency
The government shutdown was supposed to be a non-event for travelers, but it didn’t quite turn out that way.
When a gridlocked Congress shuttered vast sections of the federal government on Oct. 1 and furloughed 800,000 workers, its decision touched tourists in unexpected ways, from abruptly canceling a camping trip in a national park to foiling a destination wedding. It drained visitors from popular attractions, causing hotel occupancy rates to plummet and hurting other travel-related businesses.
Along the way, many travelers have discovered the important — and often underappreciated — part that the federal government plays in travel.
Without the government, they learned, some of the most interesting parts of the travel industry simply wouldn’t exist. “People haven’t been as aware of the government’s role in travel,” says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
On paper, the shutdown didn’t look like much, at least from a travel point of view. Both federal Transportation Security Administration screeners and air traffic controllers remained on the job. America’s embassies and consulates stayed open, and passport applications were still being processed.
But in practice, it turned out to be a significant event. Travelers were unprepared for the closing of America’s 401 national parks, which included all monuments along the National Mall, the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo. “People wanted to know, ‘What does any of this have to do with the issues in Washington?’ “ says John Reynolds, a former deputy director of the National Park Service. “The answer is: ‘It has absolutely nothing to do with it.’ They were absolutely appalled.”
Count Kristy Michael among them. She was camping in Grand Teton National Park on Oct. 2 when a park ranger at Gros Ventre Campground ordered her and her husband to pack up their Airstream and leave the facility within 48 hours, a day earlier than planned. “Our original plan was to head south from Grand Teton and visit Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in southern Utah,” she adds. “Of course, with the shutdown that won’t be happening.”
This is possibly the worst time of year to close a national park, particularly in the southwestern United States. “Because temperatures here in the desert are starting to cool down, this time of year is incredibly important to us,” says Robert Richardson, who runs a recreational gear review site in Las Vegas. “To have these parks close during the peak of the season is devastating to our tourism industry.” (Some parks have reopened in this past week, funded by states which are paying the National Park Service to operate them.)
The effects are also being felt closer to the capital, where many of the city’s popular museums went dark. Marcy Schackne, a vice president for a luggage company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had plans to fly to Washington later this month for a wedding but has already canceled her museum visits. “Nothing is open,” she said. The happy couple was planning to get hitched in the District, but Schackne fears that the closings could force them to change their wedding plans, too.
Across the Potomac in Arlington, Va., the combined effects of a slump in tourism and canceled trips related to the government shutdown has resulted in up to a 50 percent drop in hotel revenue, according to Cara O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for Arlington Economic Development. “It’s a mix of meetings of government business and contractor events that are being canceled, school groups and leisure travel,” she says. “It’s really hurting us.”
Travelers, meanwhile, are quick to blame their travel problems on the shutdown, even when the connection is tenuous at best.
Helene Ward and her husband were returning to Washington Dulles International Airport from Athens, Greece, on Oct. 2 when they were met with “inordinately long lines” at customs. Ward believes that their two-hour delay was a direct result of the shutdown, even though customs officers aren’t supposed to be affected by the furloughs. “There was only one customs officer,” she remembers. “It was bad enough for Americans to see how dysfunctional our government is, but shameful for foreigners to see us at our worst.”
There’s no substitute for a closed museum or park. You can’t replace a visit to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, because there’s nothing on Earth like it. Thanks to the closings, our trip, and many others, could end in disappointment.
Perhaps the only real solution is to let Congress know how unhappy you are about your foiled travel plans. An email or phone call would do the trick, but experts agree that the best opportunity to express your disapproval may be at the ballot box.