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 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 Western 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.”
Making matters worse, the National Park Service has threatened anyone entering any of the national parks or national wildlife refuges with a $5,000 fine and jail time of up to six months, an action that Richardson called “absurd.” As of early last week, 21 people have reportedly been issued citations for entering Grand Canyon National Park.
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.