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The Nation

White House Is Set to Reopen for Tours

September 03, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Starting Sept. 16, the White House will reopen its tours to the general public for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was announced Tuesday.

The decision to allow the public back into what President Bush likes to call "the people's house" reflects a general sense that security will not be compromised at the executive mansion, administration officials said.

Tickets will be available only through members of Congress, and potential visitors must provide their date of birth and Social Security number for a security check.

According to the White House Web site, www.whitehouse.gov, only groups of 10 or more will be admitted.

Despite these restrictions, Washington tourism officials heartily cheered the news.

"This is another indication that there is a new sense of normalcy in the nation's capital," said William A. Hanbury, chief executive of the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp.

In recent years, more than 1 million people visited the White House annually, but tours were suspended immediately after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.

The ban on White House tours was relaxed in February 2002, when organized school and other youth groups were allowed to tour the mansion as long as they made reservations through congressional offices and provided personal background information. More recently, military and veterans' groups were added to the visitors' list, with the same limitations.

Because of the post-Sept. 11 restrictions, only 178,092 visitors toured the White House in 2002, according to the National Park Service.

While only a minuscule percentage of tourists in Washington visit the White House, the building's reopening sends an important message, Hanbury said. "It's symbolically the most recognizable tourism attraction we have.... So bravo!" he said.

"Clearly, Washington is more conscientious about security than any American city -- because we have some of the most important symbols and instruments of American democracy, and they have to be protected. And many Americans are yearning to see and touch these symbols of patriotism."

Only now is tourism in Washington returning to pre-Sept. 11 levels, Hanbury said.

"We had an outstanding tourism summer," he said, noting that hotels were reporting an occupancy rate of 80%, up 4% to 5% from the years before the attacks.

A total of 18 million to 20 million visitors come to Washington each year. "It looks as if 2003 will be right in that range," Hanbury said.

Before the terrorist attacks, visitors could simply show up at the White House's eastern entrance and wait in line for a tour, or obtain a ticket ahead of time from their representative in Congress.

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