As packed charter buses dropped off senior citizens and school children, Northern Virginia tourism officials gathered Tuesday inside the historic Mount Vernon Estate to hear about new key attractions hoped to lure thousands more visitors and expand the region's $5.86 billion tourism industry.
Tourism expenditures in Northern Virginia comprised 38 percent of the commonwealth's total tourism revenue of $15.4 billion from 36 million total visitors in 2004.
From 2003 to 2004, tourism spending in Northern Virginia increased by 8.4 percent to $5.86 billion. Fairfax City led the region in growth, enjoying a 16 percent increase in tourism spending.
Tourism is Northern Virginia's third largest industry, employing nearly 77,000 workers, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.
"You've really got your act together," U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) told the crowd of roughly 100 tourism officials. "A lot of revenue is being created and that's creating a lot of jobs."
The industry representatives from each Northern Virginia jurisdiction Ñ including Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties Ñ came together at Mount Vernon last week to highlight upcoming openings of the region's newest museums, memorials, historic sites and other events.
"Our goal is to get more visitors to stay longer and spend more money," said Rick Siger, Virginia's deputy secretary of commerce and trade. "It's just as simple as that."
ALEXANDRIA tourism officials hope to attract visitors later this month, when the authentic replica ship "Godspeed" sails into the city's marina. The ship, which will set sail from Jamestown, is scheduled to visit Alexandria from May 28 to June 3. The "Godspeed's" visit is the inaugural event of next year's 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only for the people of Jamestown but for everyone in the commonwealth," said Amy Ritchie, manager of statewide programs for the 2007 celebration. "The eyes of the world and the nation will be on Virginia."
A few miles down the George Washington Parkway from Alexandria, the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens is expected to experience a banner year in 2006. On Oct. 27, the historic estate will unveil its $95 million renovation, which will include a new orientation center, museum and education facility.
Mount Vernon's new features are intended to teach visitors more about Washington's early adulthood, military leadership and presidency.
"We have found that visitors are coming to Mount Vernon with only the most basic knowledge about George Washington," said James Rees, the site's executive director. "To preserve his legacy, we are building new facilities to show visitors specifically why George Washington, the most dynamic leader of his time, was chosen again and again by the founding fathers to lead this country."
A MAJOR NEW attraction in Arlington will be the Air Force Memorial, currently under construction a half mile south of the Pentagon.
The memorial will feature three towering stainless steel spires reminiscent of a fighter jet's vapor trail, a granite remembrance wall and an eight-foot bronze statue of a military honor guard standing at attention.
It is designed to honor the 54,000 Air Force personnel who have been killed in combat, said retired Col. Pete Lindquist, vice president for operations of the Air Force Memorial Foundation.
"We are not only building a memorial to the Air Force, we feel we are building a memorial for the American people," Lindquist said.
The Air Force memorial will be dedicated Oct. 14 before an expected 20,000 visitors. In the coming years, Lindquist said, the memorial will draw thousands of tourists to Arlington, much like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
In Loudoun County, tourists will be able to visit the newly restored historic Dodona Manor in Leesburg, former home of Gen. George C. Marshall, and the recently renovated Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, which now includes a new golf course and 12,000-square-foot luxury spa.
Loudoun tourism officials are also seeking to preserve the Route 15 corridor known as the Journey Through Hallowed Ground. Along the 175-mile stretch of scenic highway from Gettysburg to Charlottesville are eight presidential homes and numerous Civil War, Revolutionary War and War of 1812 historic sites, including 23 in Loudoun County alone.
"This corridor is like the spine of American history," said Cate Magennis Wyatt, president of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership.
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) and U.S. Sen. George Allen (R) are sponsoring bills that would designate the corridor as a National Heritage Area. The move, which functions as federal acknowledgment of an area's cultural and historic significance, would raise the corridorÕs profile and bring more visitors to Loudoun, said Cheryl Kilday, president of the Loudoun Convention and Visitors Association.
"It could be a significant draw for our county," Kilday said. "It would be good for tourism and tourism is good for our local economy."
A NEW MUSEUM, honoring the U.S. Marine Corps, is slated to open in Quantico Nov. 10. Visible from I-95, the 115,000-square-foot facility is projected to attract 35,000 visitors to its dedication ceremony.
The museum features a tall glass ceiling, inspired by the image of Marines hoisting the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima. It will also showcase different eras of Marine Corps history, allowing visitors to have interactive experiences echoing Vietnam, World War II and Korea.
"We want to show visitors what it means to be a Marine," said retired Col. Raymond Hord, of the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Hord said he anticipates the museum will draw additional tourists to Northern Virginia, many of whom will visit other attractions in the region.
DESPITE THE ROSY outlook by Northern Virginia's tourism officials, a few dark clouds may loom on the horizon.
Moran said that if the General Assembly fails to enact meaningful new investments in transportation, then gridlock could stymie tourism growth.
"As wonderful as these destinations are, we've got to be able to get to them," Moran said.
Gas prices are approaching records highs and the Virginia Tourism Corporation reported in January that tourism visits are down 0.9 percent across the state and by 6.2 percent in Northern Virginia over the previous year.