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Washington endures tourism setback

From Sheilah Kast

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The newest tourist spot in the Washington area is next to a highway, on a hill dotted with makeshift memorials for the victims of September 11.

"We just wanted to see history in the making," tourist Cori Feist said of the site, overlooking the damaged Pentagon. "We just wanted to see what it really looked like, instead of just in the news and the newspapers -- and to pay our respects."

CNN's Sheila Kast reports on new spots for tourists in the Washington, DC area (November 6)

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"It seems so exposed. So open, kind of this gaping wound," said tourist Emily Parkhurst.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, visitors to the nation's capital have lost some of the high-profile attractions that used to draw them here. Tours of the White House, the Capitol building, the FBI and the Mint all have been suspended.

Museums and nearly all the memorials are open, but they're missing many of the tourists who used to fill their halls, particularly the hordes of schoolchildren on class trips, who have been mostly absent this fall.

"We probably are running anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of what we would normally have this time of year," said John Dailey, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Of course, some tourists like the smaller crowds.

"We're taking advantage of less traffic. It's been nice," visitor Teri McLean said. "It's been really easy to get in and out."

The Smithsonian receives most of its budget from the federal government, but at George Washington's Mount Vernon, a private foundation covers 85 percent of its costs from tickets and other sales to tourists. Fewer people could mean economic catastrophe.

So in an effort to attract visitors, the curators at Washington's historic home decided to make history, displaying his dentures for the first time.

A collection of human teeth, elephant ivory, and carved cow's teeth, they're set in lead and held together with a hinge and spring that pressed against the first president's gums to keep the quarter-pound appliance in place.

"When we took the dentures on a road trip around the country, we were just amazed at how they attracted the most attention, more attention than any other item in the show," Executive Director James Rees said.

And attention is what Mount Vernon needs right now. That's also why they've opened the third floor, which is usually off limits to visitors.

"It's very poignant right now to go and visit a place like Colonial Williamsburg or Mount Vernon or Jamestown, because that's our roots," visitor Sandy Bahen said.

Rees said those who are coming are there for all the right reasons.

"I think they're coming because they know that Mount Vernon doesn't just teach the mind, but it can touch the spirit," he said.

And the American spirit is what the tourist industry is counting on.


• Mount Vernon
• Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Home Page
• Washington Convention & Tourism Corporation

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