The government shutdown’s surprise effect on travelers

Orhan Kam/Shutterstock
Orhan Kam/Shutterstock
The government shutdown was supposed to be a non-event for travelers, but it didn’t quite turn out that way.

When a gridlocked Congress shuttered vast sections of the federal government on Oct. 1 and furloughed 800,000 workers, its decision touched tourists in unexpected ways, from abruptly canceling a camping trip in a national park to foiling a destination wedding. It drained visitors from popular attractions, causing hotel occupancy rates to plummet and hurting other travel-related businesses.

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Along the way, many travelers have discovered the important — and often underappreciated — part that the federal government plays in travel.

Without the government, they learned, some of the most interesting parts of the travel industry simply wouldn’t exist. “People haven’t been as aware of the government’s role in travel,” says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

On paper, the shutdown didn’t look like much, at least from a travel point of view. Both federal Transportation Security Administration screeners and air traffic controllers remained on the job. America’s embassies and consulates stayed open, and passport applications were still being processed.

But in practice, it turned out to be a significant event. Travelers were unprepared for the closing of America’s 401 national parks, which included all monuments along the Mall, the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo. “People wanted to know, ‘What does any of this have to do with the issues in Washington?’ ” says John Reynolds, a former deputy director of the National Park Service. “The answer is: ‘It has absolutely nothing to do with it.’ They were absolutely appalled.”

Count Kristy Michael among them. She was camping in Grand Teton National Park on Oct. 2 when a park ranger at Gros Ventre Campground ordered her and her husband to pack up their Airstream and leave the facility within 48 hours, a day earlier than planned. “Our original plan was to head south from Grand Teton and visit Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in southern Utah,” she adds. “Of course, with the shutdown that won’t be happening.”

This is possibly the worst time of year to close a national park, particularly in the Western United States. “Because temperatures here in the desert are starting to cool down, this time of year is incredibly important to us,” says Robert Richardson, who runs a recreational gear review site in Las Vegas. “To have these parks close during the peak of the season is devastating to our tourism industry.”

Making matters worse, the National Park Service has threatened anyone entering any of the national parks or national wildlife refuges with a $5,000 fine and jail time of up to six months, an action that Richardson called “absurd.” As of early last week, 21 people have reportedly been issued citations for entering Grand Canyon National Park.

The effects are also being felt closer to the capital, where many of the city’s popular museums went dark. Marcy Schackne, a vice president for a luggage company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had plans to fly to Washington later this month for a wedding but has already canceled her museum visits. “Nothing is open,” she said. The happy couple was planning to get hitched in the District, but Schackne fears that the closings could force them to change their wedding plans, too.

Across the Potomac in Arlington, the combined effects of a slump in tourism and canceled trips related to the government shutdown has resulted in up to a 50 percent drop in hotel revenue, according to Cara O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for Arlington Economic Development. “It’s a mix of meetings of government business and contractor events that are being canceled, school groups and leisure travel,” she says. “It’s really hurting us.”

Travelers, meanwhile, are quick to blame their travel problems on the shutdown, even when the connection is tenuous at best. Don Fairley, a retired marketing executive from Long Beach, Calif., says that he endured a 1½-hour wait at customs in Houston after flying in from Frankfurt, Germany, last week. “It was a total mess,” he says.

Helene Ward and her husband were returning to Washington Dulles International Airport from Athens on Oct. 2 when they were met with “inordinately long lines” at customs. Ward believes that their two-hour delay was a direct result of the shutdown, even though customs officers aren’t supposed to be affected by the furloughs. “There was only one customs officer,” she remembers. “It was bad enough for Americans to see how dysfunctional our government is, but shameful for foreigners to see us at our worst.”

While these problems, both real and imagined, may pale in comparison with the disaster that some predict will occur if the U.S. government defaults on its debt — a possible result of the legislative brinksmanship — I can’t help adding my own tale of woe. I’m scheduled to start a three-week tour of America’s Western national parks, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton, on Monday. Even if all the parks reopen, Reynolds says that it will take weeks for them to be fully up and running smoothly.

I don’t know how to break it to my kids, ages 6, 8 and 11. Maybe I should start by telling them a little bit about how our government works — or doesn’t work.

There’s no substitute for a closed museum or park. You can’t replace a visit to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, because there’s nothing on Earth like it. Thanks to the closings, our trip, and many others, could end in disappointment.

Perhaps the only real solution is to let Congress know how unhappy you are about your foiled travel plans. An e-mail or phone call would do the trick, but experts agree that the best opportunity to express your disapproval may be at the ballot box.

Who is responsible for the government shutdown?

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58 thoughts on “The government shutdown’s surprise effect on travelers

  1. As a retired veteran (24 years active service) and current government worker, I can attest to the foolishness of this shutdown. Why are you arguing about a law you had two years to repeal? It like a kid losing at kickball and threatens to take his ball and go home unless everyone chooses to play something else. By the way, I am not a fan of the law either, but it is what it is.

    It’s been a while since I had Junior High Government, but if I remember correctly if you don’t like a law you introduce a bill to have it changed not hold the country hostage to try and change it. I have already written and called my Congressman to express my displeasure with the job he is doing? Not that it will do any good, they are just serving their own interest and in my opinion most don’t care about the people they were elected to serve.

    1. Actually your are remembering your government lessons incorrectly. Under the separation of powers the US Congress (specifically the House) was given the “power of the checkbook” in order to control the actions of the Executive Branch. It was done so in the event the Executive Branch opted not to enforce a bill as it was passed or acted in a manner contrary to the will on Congress. Whether you agree with what they have done or not, the Republican argument is that they are using this Constitutionally granted power because the Executive has failed to place the bill into effect as passed and has granted extensions or waivers that the Bill did not allow it to.

      I think all parties involved need to get off their high horse and actually pass a balance budget for once in their life.

      1. But that doesn’t apply here. The Republican argument is not that the Democrats aren’t enforcing Obamacare, but rather that they want it repealed.

    2. Republicans had apparently been hoping for a public backlash against Obamacare that never happened – after all, the largest set of changes is only now going into effect, so there is nothing to lash back against yet.

      The general public hates the current monopolistic, anti-market medical system (sound familiar, travelers?) so much that the perception is that any alternative, even if it falls flat on its face, would be better.

      1. I’d love to see something more than your statement that shows that the general public hates the current system so much that Obamacare – which has been shown to be unpopular – is a preferred alternative.

        1. How about the FACT that the general public did not vote for the candidate that promised to repeal the act. Is that enough of a consensus that Obamacare is preferred?

          1. So, let me see if I follow you logic. Romney promised to repeal Obamacare. The fact that the majority of the voting public didn’t vote for him PROVES that they supported Obamacare? Really? There was no other issue on the docket that would have swayed them to vote that way? Do you only vote for candidates that you agree with 100%?

    3. What is my party (Republican) thinking? You can’t hold the country hostage because you don’t like ONE law that was passed. It’s a democracy — we don’t always get what we want, especially since we’re in the minority.

      Look our guy ran for president with the promise to overturn this bad law — he lost. That’s democracy, so let’s get over it and move on. Sometimes we lose. But sooner or later, things will reverse and the Democrats will control the House. Do you want THEM to say, “Look, 70% top tax rate or we shut down the government”

      The bigger issue, as we head into the Christmas season, is “will this have a chilling effect on consumer confidence and crash the entire economy?” Well, we’ve seen what it’s doing to travel. If it continues, I’m cutting my Christmas budget in half because, well, you never know what will happen.

      1. Your guy actually created the affordable health care act in Massachusetts. It finally gave my children a plan they could pay for. When Romneycare turned into Obamacare, he and his fellow party members suddenly wanted to trash it. It makes absolutely no sense and the government shut-down over it makes even less sense, if that’s possible.

    4. It’s one thing to have concerns about how the health care reform is going to be paid for. It’s another entirely to hold the government and the nation hostage after repeatedly losing votes to get it repealed. The house voted 40 times on the issue as of August, and failed every time. That’s valuable time and effort that could have been spent preventing this crisis to begin with.

      This is 100% the fault of the Republican Party for not accepting the will of the majority of the Amercian people, and for failing to negotiate in good faith.

  2. The customs delays are not a result of the shutdown, but may be a result of the sequester – another ill advised bit of government dysfunction. I trust all the people clamoring for small government will realize that government does more than they think and we need to fund it.

    1. There is a major disconnect between the ideal of a smaller government, how the government actually is set up (which often makes no sense), special provisions to give key lobbies the breaks they “need” etc. Everyone thinks they can just cut this or that but they usually do not understand the implications.

  3. Of course the Republicans are to blame. But many negotiations in Congress over the years have been “You vote for my expenditure and I’ll vote for yours.” Historically there has been little consideration of the overall expenditure because everyone knew we are able to create new money because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. As a result, this thinking has been very popular with everyone because all interested parties get what they want; the military, veteran’s benefits, and Wall Street had their interests satisfied, and all social programs got theirs; unemployment, welfare, food stamps, aid to dependent women with children, Headstart, etc. The loss of the purchasing power of the dollars we’ve saved isn’t appriciated immediately. (As a kid I paid a nickle for a candy bar that last week cost me $2.0)

    There is a bit of irony in the current situation in Washington. The Republicans are refusing to pay for the programs THAT CONGRESS THEMSELVES VOTED FOR. Those of you old enough to remember Walt Kelly and his cartoons of Pogo will smile when reminded of his: I’ve seen the enemy, and it’s us.

    1. That is total crap. The President has decided quite petulantly to inflict the maximum pain on the public (just as he is doing with the sequester) for pure partisan political purposes. This problem is the democrats and the democrats alone. They are holding the country hostage to another round of binge spending to buy votes from their constituents.

      1. Each party has it’s issues but your point is simply not accurate. If a small faction of the dem party was holding the entire party (and one house of congress) hostage – along with the rest of America I am sure you would be enraged at the situation. The ACA is law – deal with it.

        1. The Democratic Party and the President are holding the country hostage. The majority of Americans are completely against this and the only reason it passed was the corrupt democrats and their labor union friends put enough goodies in it to bribe even the reluctant ones. The Constitution is the Constitution you deal with it.

          1. Listen to Rush, et al much? The majority of Americans are not anti ACA. A country this wealthy should be able to have basic health care for all. The people who are willing to accept ACA and PAY the premium will be better off for it.

  4. As an Australian, I have to say I don’t really understand the situation at all. But I wish you guys all the best sorting it out.

  5. Its a combination of all three. A good leader is able to gain concensus but the people participating in the concensus need to be flexible too.

  6. I’m not answering this stupid poll because you’re obviously just trying to start an argument.

    ROTFL. Absolutely brilliant!

  7. Yes, it IS a stupid poll, but here I am, commenting on it!

    I’m a Republican, but am ashamed to say that the Tea Party (uber Republicans) have really thrown a wrench into everything. I liken them to the little kid who takes his football home because the other kids aren’t playing by his rules!

  8. It’s one thing to shut down parks that are free to all to enter. It’s another thing entirely to shut down parks where visitors must pay *fees* to gain access.

    It’s just like the FAA’s attempt to slash air traffic control blaming sequestration when anyone with a brain knows that’s paid for with the huge taxes on every airline ticket sold.

    What? you can’t get a visa due to the shutdown? What is the gov’t doing with the fees to get the visa?

  9. A note regarding the person thinking the customs line at Wash Dulles (IAD) was because of the shutdown – customs are generally crazy there, especially at times of day when a lot of flights are coming in at once. I’ve never seen more than 2 customs officers on duty there. I dread clearing customs at IAD, but it’s my home airport. It’s really luck of the draw depending on how many other flights landed around the same time as yours.

  10. Frankly the House of Representatives has passed a multitude of bills that will keep most of the government functioning, but Senate Democrats have refused to even bring these to a vote in the Senate…and people say “Republicans” are to blame? All programs must be funded by the House, which is the closest reflection of the voices of the American people in Washington, DC. A majority of Americans do not want “Obamacare” and the House is listening to them. In addition, there have been dozens of potentially illegal modifications to the codified law of “Obamacare,” including the delay in the employer mandate and the illegal subsidies that (only) members of Congress and their staff members will receive…so the House is passing bills that would “codify” the illegal changes that the Executive branch (Obama) has made.

    1. Actually the ACA has great support in polls when not called Obamacare – so quit cherry picking your polls. What the House did was to hold a school bus full of kids hostage and then offer to let the “cute ones” (high profile political problems of the shutdown) go free if they were given what they want. We say America will not negotiate with terrorists but what happens when the extremists are part of the system???

      1. The Affordable Care Act likely gets support in polls because most folks in this country are ill-informed and don’t know that the ACA and Obamacare are the same thing. If this uninformed person is stopped in the middle of the street and asked, “Are you in favor of the Affordable Care Act?, Guess what? They sure are! Everyone wants affordable care, even thought they have no idea what they’re being asked. And before you counter, yes, it’s just as likely that folks are against Obamacare because of the name. Polls can, and are, worded in such a way as to take advantage of the public’s ignorance and to support whatever the pollster wants to promote. I don’t put very much stake in polls.

  11. …And the park closings are simply attempts to punish the American people by a regime that seeks to get its own way all of the time. Never before during a shut down has the Executive branch (in this case Obama) ever closed down national parks, refused to pay the families of fallen soldiers, blocked access to normally “open” federal monuments (while at the same time expending multitudes of time and manpower allowing demonstrations on the National Mall by those advocating for illegal activity). And if you think it is bad now, just wait to see what they threaten to do to your “healthcare” if Obamacare is not repealed and there’s another government shut down.

    The punitive actions currently being undertaken are soley the responsibility of the Obama Administration. If the Democrats in the Senate had passed the bills sent over by the Republican House, the only government “program” that would have lost funding is Obamacare…and all can see how horrible its implementation is currently going.

    People need to start reading the British media and alternate sources for the truth.

  12. Make one long for the day when Reagan and O’Neill would meet in the Oval Office over a bottle of Irish whiskey, work out a compromise, and move forward.

      1. Don’t forget the shutdown that happened during Peanut farmer’s reign. House=dem. Senate=dem. Prez=dem. Yet they still couldn’t agree.

      2. Boehner agreed to a deal with the President in July but Boehner could not get it through his band of fools even with a few stray House Democrats voting with the Republicans. ACA is already a passed law with funding so the House cannot “cut” funding.

  13. Chris, in a frequently updated story entitled “Shutting Down ‘The National Parks: America’s
    Best Idea,’” I’ve been covering the effect of the government shutdown on the
    national parks and their adjacent communities.

    There’s been good and bad news for me as far as visiting federal parks this year.

    The good news is that during July I hung out for six days in one of America’s most scenic, but
    least known, western parks, Lassen Volcanic National Park, at the invitation of
    the park’s concessionaire.

    And traveling on “my own nickel” last month, I was able to spend two marvelous days on the west
    side of Rocky Mountain National Park, even though my plan to visit the east side was washed away by flooding that heavily damaged Estes Park in mid-September.

    But that bad news is that now that I am back home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m shut
    out of tens of thousands of acres of federal parks in my own backyard: The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods, and Point Reyes National Seashore.

    The bad news for the many out-of-town, and out-of-the-country visitors to the Bay Area is that
    they may miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience the natural wonders of those parks.

    The good news for me is that sometime in the foreseeable future, I’ll be back on the trails
    that I’ve hiked on many Tuesdays since retiring nearly six years ago.

    I encourage your readers that have been to U.S. National Parks, or had their plans to visit
    them thwarted by the government shutdown, to go to the National Parks Conservation Association Website (,post their park stories, and read those of other park visitors, including myself.

    The National Parks remain “America’s Best Idea.” But while Congress fiddles, and tourists do a slow burn, visiting those parks remains a mere pipe dream obscured by smoke blown by politicians from both sides of the aisle in Washington.

    Go west, young man!

    Maybe by the time you reach Yellowstone the welcome mat will be out once again.

  14. Teabaggers isn’t listed? Or lobbyists. I do think many of those in public service start out somewhat ‘clean’ but once you toss lobby money and power around it is hard to do what is right. I get super riled when state and federal elected officials ramble that they want to require those getting public money for food be drug tested. Moving past the general expensive stupidity of it all – don’t the voted officials use public money for food each and every day? Where are their drug tests? Oh, right, they also exempted themselves from the do not call list, yet use the list to solicit it for election calls. I never signed up for the list and never got political calls. Everyone I know that signed up at the do not call magically started hearing from politicians. That said, republicans are fighting a law that has stood up to the highest court and are using the budget to fight a battle that they’ve lost many times. Shameful. But the real problem coming is the debt ceiling. Most Americans have zero idea the impact that will have, it will be swift (under 6 months) and will devastate the banking and investment industry which will then cause a massive ripple worldwide. That is why the debt deal must be reached before the budget.

    Thanks Chris – I am all wound up now. 🙂

  15. The US government was supposed to be made up of three
    branches. The Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial.

    Now the Legislative could pass a law and then have the
    President sign on it to make it a law. What has been forgotten is the bypassing
    of the Judicial. The Judicial was supposed to be the “purse strings”. That
    portion of the Government was suppose to
    state that yes we could afford it or no we couldn’t afford it. The Judicial has
    failed to do its job since we are obviously in so much debt. I wonder who steam
    rolled over the judicial part. Could it be a president that appoints members of
    the Judicial part.

    The three portions of our Government were suppose to be a
    checks and balances on each other to keep us on an even keel.

    We will now pass on to our heirs a tremendous debt.

    Oh! Obama Care is not about health care, it is about control
    of people.

    Welfare programs are also to control people who get
    something for nothing and the more of that that occurs the more inflationary our
    economy will become. But of course, If I
    get a welfare check I would certainly vote to keep it coming. I am all for charity, and caring for the
    sick, but paying women to have babies and then paying to help them take care of
    them is somewhat counterproductive to self sufficiency.

    1. The Judicial branch has nothing to do with the “purse strings” of our government. They determine if the laws passed are actually legal if brought into question. Payment is and has been controlled by the House of Representatives portion of the Legislative branch.

      1. You are correct Dave. I thought I had read somewhere when the country first organized the three branches as independent of each other, the judicial was suppose to oversee expenditures, but I can’t find where I thought I read it.

  16. As a die-hard independent I see all of them as responsible. The Dems controlled both houses of Congress for the first two years of President Obama’s administration. They did little negotiating as promised by the president and were also unable to pass a budget bill. The Republicans have been playing payback ever since and refuse to negotiate anything either. And the president insists on all his way. What we have is a schoolyard squabble being carried out without regard to real-world consequences. No elected official is doing his/her job. And we are encouraging and allowing this to continue. So maybe Chris should have added voters to hi multiple choice survey.

  17. the republicans are responsible >>??r u people nuts or do not keep up with the news?? NO INFORMATION VOTERS remember obamas(BO–barack obama) dog got to fly on a private jet to martha’s vineyard ($11,000)while the whitle house is closed to visitors. His military golf course is still open for him to play GOLF… priorities… No Bama care…more taxes(16 new ones in the unaffordable healtkcare bill.
    remember the software company overseeing the implementation of no bama care is from Canada

    1. I am curious. Do the down votes mean the statements are not correct (they are) or do the down voters just not like hearing them?

      1. The down voters (of which I was one) don’t like the disrespect and name calling, which seems to be trollish in nature.

      2. The $11000 private jet flight for the dog is not correct. The flight was already booked for other attendees so the dog just tagged along at no additional cost.

  18. Less finger pointing, more fixing.

    There are moderates from both parties trying to be heard on how to fix things, but they get shouted down by the idjits. Pay attention to your Congresscritters. Any one of them who has been acting like a toddler in this mess should not get your vote next time they’re running for re-election.

    Elections: The best term limits out there. Vote with your brain.

  19. I’ve been involved with federal spending and contracting for almost thirty years. One thing that I learned is that it takes quite a long time to get anything done, contract-wise, in the Government. It took me 6 weeks to buy some Off The Shelf cell phones not too long ago. How long do you you think it would take to contract for, design, produce, and distribute professionally done signs to all of the National Parks and memorials in the country? Weeks? Months? Yet, by 10am on October 1st, every one of these locations had Government issued signs up at he front gates. Hmmmm.

  20. A shame this is happening, and that so many trips will be affected. I know South Dakota has reopened Mount Rushmore with the use corporate donations and state funds.

  21. IMO, it’s a naive person who believes that either “side” in these types of debates is completely right while the other “side” is completely wrong. But, I believe this is the way that the politicos want it. The Democratic Party wants their constituents to think that all Republicans are money-grubbing, morally bankrupt evil Capitalists, while the Republican Party wants its constituents to believe that all Democrats are Socialists standing around with their hands out, more concerned with saving trees than building up our country. These kinds of beliefs take the focus off the real problem; that ALL politicians have lost their way. They have forgotten who they serve. Their goal is to get reelected, period. Any altruistic feelings that they ever had towards the electorate have been destroyed by Washington politics.

    Why don’t we try something different for a change? How about actually discussing politics with folks who have a different opinions than you do? I know, OMG, never discuss religion or politics. Why not? I believe that politics are the one thing we absolutely must discuss with each other. It affects us all every day of our lives.It can be done respectfully and patiently. Give it a try.

    So Chris, please don’t fall to the level of mainstream media and simply throw more gas on the flames by encouraging us to point fingers as each other. We, the people, should be pointing our fingers at every one of those 535 so-called “representatives” and asking ourselves, “Do you represent me?” If not, kick ’em out. Do this 3 or 4 times and they MIGHT get the point. They might not, I know. But, guaranteed, if you keep putting the same professional politicians back in office, again and again, you lose the right to complain about the things they do.

  22. The House of Representatives – those nasty Republicans – voted to fund the President’s ENTIRE budget…except for Obamacare. That fact is a matter of public record, look it up. The Senate wants everything that they asked for. I doubt that that has ever happened. It is one of the Constitutionally assigned duties of the HofR to fund the budget. The constitutionality of Obamacare is not the point; it is up to the HofR to decide whether they want to fund it or not. So-called “legislation by appropriation” has been going on for many presidential terms, from both sides of the aisle; this is nothing new; it is both legal and not unprecedented.

    A large percentage of the Republican congressmen got elected to this term by promising their constituents that they would do what they could to end Obamacare. Many might say that they are following through on those promises. Again, everything else in the President’s budget was fully funded.

    As far as the debt ceiling goes; don’t you believe that there is still money coming into the Treasury? That doesn’t stop during a shutdown. And it exceeds the interest that has to be paid on the National Debt. The only “hindrance” is that the Government can’t run up NEW debt if the debt ceiling isn’t raised.

    I will agree that the Republican Party is failing in this instance; but not for the reasons given here so far. What they are failing at is getting their side of the story out. The Democratic Party is simply schooling the Republicans on how to conduct a PR campaign and spin the “facts” to their advantage. The media plays no small role in this.

  23. Good news and bad news for those wanting to go to the U.S. National Parks.

    Bad news: Most parts remain closed.

    Good news: The Statute of Liberty, Grand Canyon, Mountain Rushmore, Rocky Mountain, and the national parks in Utah have been re-opened, thanks to the agreement of state governments to fund the operation of those parks. Here’s the complete list of those you can visit in person or virtually via park Websites:

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