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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

On the move: why 'protest tourism' can be a pleasure

Travel industry officials estimate that Washington DC has seen 3 million extra visitors in the year since President Trump took office

A family from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the Watergate hotel in Washington DC. Rosemary Behan
A family from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the Watergate hotel in Washington DC. Rosemary Behan

I've been in Washington DC this week for the first time in about 15 years. Since I'd only attended a conference back then, I'd never actually had time to see the sights.

This week I was a guest at the newly revamped Watergate Hotel, the centre of the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, where President Nixon was forced to resign after the offices of the Democratic National Committee, then right next to the hotel, were broken into. The hotel, part of a complex of four blocks on the Potomac River built in the 1960s, now enjoys protected status on the National Register of Historic Places. Political junkies pay upwards of $800 (Dh2,900) a night to stay in the so-called "Scandal Suite" and ordinary guests pay over $400 (Dh1,500) per night.

At breakfast on the day of the March for Our Lives protest, the restaurant took on a festival atmosphere. Dozens of guests had arrived the night before from across the United States in order to take part in the march. Far from hiding their political affiliations, several families brought their signs and banners down to the morning buffet.

The family sitting next to me had travelled from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the site of the recent school shooting in which 17 students were shot dead at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County on Valentine's Day. Having missed the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting of last year, in which five people were shot dead at the baggage carousel, also in Broward County, by half an hour, and as a frequent visitor to the United States, I welcome greater gun control for the sake of locals and visitors alike.

And with the March for Our Lives protest, which attracted 800,000 people to make it the biggest single-day protest in the history of the nation's capital, we are also seeing the phenomenon of "protest tourism" going mainstream. While once protesters would arrive at marches in dribs and drabs, in beaten-up old vans and with a sense of furtiveness, major US travel agents are now handling hotel bookings and transport for individuals and groups taking part. At my hotel at least 50 of its rooms were booked by protestors, and, in the year since President Trump took office, travel industry officials estimate that some 3 million extra visitors have arrived in Washington DC.

Despite the emotiveness of the issue, the atmosphere in the restaurant was inspiring, as strangers from different parts of the country greeted each other and offered encouragement. Here were people who had spent thousands of dollars of their own money to make their voices heard.

After the march, many decided to make a weekend of it, packing the city's sights before returning home. On the last day of my trip, I wasn't able to get into the National Archives on the Mall, which displays the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. But that didn't really matter, because I'd seen something much more real - intelligent, generous individuals working together to affect positive change.

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Read more:

Protesters brace freezing temperatures to 'March for our lives'

A political tour of Washington DC

My Kind of Place: Georgetown, Washington DC

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