Disclaimer: This is a fluid situation and like anything in Washington, it can change in a heartbeat!
Well, the government is shut down. And while we bemoan any governmental intrusion into our lives, it is a necessary evil and often times we simply go about our lives oblivious to the government. Not so much with a shut down. A government shut down can have far reaching impacts on the travel industry.
But, as of now, it seems that our industry may have dodged a bullet in this latest shutdown. In 2013, President Obama seemed to use much of the public facing aspects of the government shutdown as a bargaining chip in negotiations with congress. National parks were closed, lines were out of control in the airports, Veterans were unable to visit open-air monuments, etc.
This time, it seems a little less disruptive. And as of now (Sunday evening) here’s what we know.
National Parks. Interior Secretary Zinke is working on a program to keep them open and accessible. However, there will be reduced staff and individual parks may not be able to be open. Currently the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island along with the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia are closed. The Smithsonian Museums are planning to be open on Monday (January 22) yet no decision has been made beyond that. It is quite possible that if no deal is reached in the budget, that the Smithsonian Museums will close on Tuesday. To give you an idea of the impact of a shutdown, in 2013 it is estimated that National Parks turned away 750,000 visitors per day and lost out on $500 million of visitor spending. Animals at the National Zoo will still be fed and cared for.
Air Travel. There should be minimal disruption this time around. The TSA and Homeland Security are two departments that will keep nearly all of their employees working—albeit without a paycheck for now. And contrary to a rumor I heard, there will not be an influx of federal employees traveling on vacation—if they are furloughed, they are expected to be back at work as soon as this is resolved.
Travel Documents. Passport processing will continue as normal; but with fewer employees. If you are submitting a Passport application in the next 6 to 8 weeks, expect a longer than normal wait time. Keep in mind that backlogs in any aspect of the government will take time to clear. If you have foreign clients looking to come INTO the US and require a Visa, this may prove to be a problem as the Visa processing abroad is closed. Passport offices located within federal buildings will be closed.
So, what do you do if a client is impacted? Punt! Well, kind of. First of all, contact the venues if you can to ascertain their level of “openness”. Investigate similar options in the destination. For example in Washington DC, while the Smithsonian museums may close, the Holocaust Museum and the Newseum will remain open as they are privately funded. Keep in mind that in addition to National Parks, there are plenty of State Parks and monuments that will remain open. Make sure you check out the local Visitor’s Bureau for suggestions.
And another bonus…if you are in a destination like Washington (and to a lesser extent any other US metropolitan area) the daily crowds will be less and getting around will be easy.
When the resolution happens is anyone’s guess, but I do not think this will be a very long one. It is politically embarrassing that it is happening when one party controls all the moving parts, yet cannot agree. Stay tuned. Hopefully this column will be moot by the time it is published!