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Tourist Time: Capitol Hill Gets Ready for Influx

As the temperatures slowly climb, another inevitable fact of life arrives in Washington, D.C.: tourists.

Whether in the form of the nuclear family or hordes of high school students, they descend upon the city, eager to soak up some history and to tire out their feet.

And with 2.4 million visits annually, the Capitol remains one of the top destinations for out-of-towners.

In the winter, the average number of visitors a day is 2,000 to 3,000, said Tom Fontana, the Capitol Visitor Center’s communications director.

But come spring, that number jumps to 10,000 to 15,000 visits daily. And when the National Cherry Blossom Festival, school spring breaks, Passover and Easter happen, the number comes closer to 17,000 visits. In fact, spring is when the Capitol gets about 10 percent of its total annual visitors, Fontana said.

“Last year, it was the perfect storm,” Fontana said. “Everything, from the festival to spring break, happened in the same two-week period, and we got nearly 20,000 people a day. We dealt with it just fine.”

To prepare for the seasonal spike, the CVC increases its temporary staff and volunteers to greet visitors and to usher tour groups along.

“We don’t want to tax the full-time staff, so we get as much help as we can,” he said.

But Fontana credits much of their preparedness for tourist season to the CVC’s existence. Since the center opened in 2008, the number of Capitol visitors has doubled. In years past, those who wanted to tour the Capitol had to line up at 7 a.m. on the West Front of the Capitol. By 10 a.m., people would be turned away because tours for the day were full.

That isn’t the case anymore, Fontana said. While most people have reservations, those who walk in can usually jump into a tour. Instead of waiting three hours, the wait time is now closer to 20 minutes. And with the center, there’s no need to line up and block sidewalks anymore. Plus, the exhibition hall, restaurant and 26 bathrooms (compared with the Capitol’s 5 public bathrooms) give visitors more of a reason to stick around longer.

The CVC emphasizes coordination. By ensuring that the tours follow the same path, they’re able to avoid what Fontana calls a “bumper car situation.”

“We want to make sure that while we’re moving thousands of people through the Capitol every hour, it doesn’t become congested, for the tours and for the Members and staffers who work there,” he said.

The center also trains Congressional staff to lead their own tours. So far this year, the CVC has trained more than 800 staffers in four-hour sessions. The staffers receive a manual that guides them through the recommended tour path and gives them talking points, from the statues on display to the construction of the Capitol.

“When people don’t know what something is, they tend to get a little creative with their explanations,” Fontana said. “The handbooks help prevent that.”

For the Capitol Police, the start of tourist season doesn’t necessarily mean beefing up security, spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said.

Since the force needs to be prepared to deal with crowds at all times, whether it’s a group of demonstrators or tourists, the Capitol Police department remains flexible with placement of officers.

“It’s just routine for us to deal with large crowds,” she said.

Over at the Library of Congress, the way to deal with the bigger crowds is to add more docents to give tours, said Giulia Adelfio, head of the LOC’s visitor services. Much like the CVC, it’s all about making sure there are enough staff members to deal with the crowds. Since the CVC’s opening, the LOC has experienced a 40 percent increase in traffic. Last year brought in 1.7 million visitors. More than 1 million of those came through the Thomas Jefferson Building, which is connected to the CVC by tunnel.

Adelfio said she believes this increase is because people don’t have to go through an additional security check if they come to the LOC from the CVC.

“We’ve made it easier, so they want to stay,” she said.

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