Travel industry leaders are worried that visitors who bring an estimated $2 billion a year in tourism and convention spending to Washington may start shunning the city because its distinction as the nation's capital is being overshadowed by its image as the nation's "murder capital."
"We're very concerned about it," said Muneer Deen, president of the Washington Hotel Association. "Some of the associations are calling us and saying, `What's going to happen to your city? Do we have to cancel?' Another thing it might affect is the family traffic in the summertime."Deen said the hotel association is embarking on a major public relations and advertising effort to assure potential tourists the District of Columbia is a safe place to visit.
As of midday Friday, 113 people had been killed in the city so far this year - many the victims of drug turf wars.
The American Bankers Association, which is sponsoring two major meetings here this year, has contacted the Washington Convention and Visitors Association to urge that action be taken to counter negative national publicity.
"ABA is just trying to anticipate a potential problem and prevent it," said association spokesman Mark Serepca. "The problem would be a decline in our conference attendance. We haven't seen any yet."
Leaders of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, a regional chamber of commerce, have begun studying the problem, a spokeswoman said.
Federal drug czar William J. Bennett announced this week that the district may be a laboratory for testing ways to attack the nation's drug problem.
"We're very encouraged with Mr. Bennett's announcement that he'll make the city a model for his program," said Deen. "That's a very positive thing he did."
But some people in the travel business believe tourists will keep coming to the District of Columbia despite its flagging image.
"Thus far, there's been no impact on the tourism industry," said Marie Tibor, director of tourism at the convention and visitors association. She said tourism went up 3 percent in 1988, a year in which a record 372 homicides were committed.
"Washington is not going to get hurt as far as the tourism business, even though its PR (public relations) is at the lowest ebb it's ever been," said Dan Bohan, owner of Omega World Travel, which has 120 agencies nationwide.
"Most visitors are coming to the capital for some specific reason - they're either politically motivated, or they're bringing school groups, or something," he explained. "It's a destination city versus just a convention city."
Other cities' problems - gang wars in Los Angeles, riots in Miami and the high crime rate in Los Angeles - have been more damaging, but the District of Columbia, with its monuments and the federal government's presence, has unique appeal, Bohan said.
"I think they realize the victims of the murder rate are not visitors to the district," he said.
However, Bohan said he does see a trend in which many tourists are choosing to stay in hotels in the adjacent suburbs of Virginia and Maryland rather than downtown.
Charles Tampio, vice president of Close Up Foundation, which organizes high school trips to Washington, said the city's problems haven't changed the group's plans but have aroused parents' fears.
"Parents are concerned. That's what we have to deal with," he said. Close Up brought 25,000 young people here last year.
"We show them all of Washington. We don't try to hide Washington's warts," said Tampio. "We want to show them that Washington, besides being the home to the federal government, is a real American city with all of its problems and possibilities."