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Washington, rated R New security restricts tourists' access in

Saturday, April 27, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The government is beginning to reopen its doors to tourists, but gone are the days when anyone willing to wait in line could gaze on White House china or traipse through the Pentagon.

Visitors this spring are finding that openness in the name of democracy is still cramped by limits in the name of security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We've seen the outside of lots of things," a resigned Lori Souba said as her husband and three children looked up at the Capitol dome. They had been stymied by the reduced number of tours of the building.

"Everything is very restricted, hard to get into," she said.

Many tourist sites -- including Smithsonian museums, national monuments and the zoo -- are operating much as before, with the addition of a few more guards searching bags and more concrete barriers to block trucks.

But it's difficult or impossible to get inside some landmarks where the work of government is done.

Shut out

"I want to see the White House!" snapped Sonya Munn when she learned that tours, suspended after the terrorist attacks, have resumed only for school groups and a few individuals escorted by congressional staff members.

"You make the effort to get here to let your kids know about history and government, and you can't get in," said Munn, who brought son Alex, 13, and daughter Alexis, 11, from Virginia Beach, Va. "That's an experience that shouldn't be taken from kids because they didn't come here in a yellow school bus."

Getting into the White House has traditionally required patience because of long lines and limited visitors' hours, which already were enforced more strictly by the Bush administration. On average, 3,000 visitors per day toured the Bush White House before Sept. 11.

President Bush looks forward to restoring the public tours someday, "when it is determined to be safe," said spokeswoman Anne Womack.

For now, she said, student groups are admitted "to reopen the White House as much as possible and do it in a way that really serves the public."

Students only

The popular FBI tour, which drew a quarter-million visitors a year, and the Pentagon also have reopened only for student tours.

"Before, we would take anybody off the street who wanted to come in," said Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood. "The situation doesn't lend itself to doing that again in the foreseeable future."

In years past, about 150,000 visitors took the tour past rows of names of Medal of Honor recipients and the Pentagon's tree-filled, 5-acre center courtyard. This year, tourists are showing up outside to watch cranes rebuilding the gash left by terrorist-hijackers.

Some Washington tourist guidelines: Expect to have your purse or fanny pack searched at Smithsonian museums. Best not to carry large backpacks or bags, prohibited at some buildings. No metal nail files or aerosol hairspray are allowed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where money is made.

And things are in flux, so call ahead in case the rules have changed.

"People have to do a little planning, get in line early and have some persistence," said Jack Nargil, a Washington concierge for 20 years, now at the Hay-Adams Hotel.

Although fear of terrorism may keep some away, a renewed sense of patriotism seems to be drawing other visitors, tourism officials say. Hotel occupancy, which dropped to 25 percent after Sept. 11, rebounded to 92 percent by late April, up a bit from the year before. Smithsonian museums counted 2.4 million visits in March, down 19 percent from the previous March, and expect some improvement in April.

Last spring, before terrorist attacks and anthrax-tainted mail, about 10,000 visitors walked the Capitol's halls on a busy day, some in guided tours but many roaming freely.

Now access is limited to an estimated 5,000 per day, with no self-guided tours.


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