US shutdown hits tourists hard

‘We are still awaiting guidance on our operating status for Monday’ — Smithsonian Museums, Washington DC

Steamed up: as the row in Washington DC continues, access to parks such as Yellowstone is uncertain
Steamed up: as the row in Washington DC continues, access to parks such as Yellowstone is uncertain

The political paralysis in Washington DC will affect tourists to the US, whether they are hoping to explore some of the world’s best museums in the American capital or the natural wonders of the national parks of California and Wyoming.

The federal government must stop paying staff for duties that are classed as “non-essential”. This covers many tourist facilities; some, but by no means all, are closed down.

If you plan a visit soon – or are already in the US – these are the key travel impacts.

What is happening to air travel?

Front-line staff in international and domestic aviation – air-traffic control, Customs & Border Protection and airport security in the US – are classed as essential workers and therefore will continue to report for duty and be paid as normal.

According to the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration will deploy around 24,000 air-traffic control staff, as normal. Accident investigators will stay on duty.

The Transportation Security Administration, which provides airport security, has about 58,000 workers, of whom 90 per cent are classed as essential. The numbers are very similar at Customs & Border Protection. But even if the public-facing staff continue to be gainfully employed, the work of back-up staff is not protected in the same way. So a technical failure that affected airport processing could cause problems for travellers.

Will I be able to get permission to visit the US?

That depends. The ESTA system for online travel authorisation, as used by most British holidaymakers and business visitors, will continue to function as normal; it is self-financing.

But anyone applying for a US visa whether for work or as a student, or because they have other issues, such as a criminal record, could find the process temporarily stops until US government funding can be agreed.

I’ve set my heart on some great America museums

In absolute terms, few US museums will be affected: the vast majority are not run by the federal government. But unfortunately for tourists, some of the best in the nation are affected.

The uncertainty also applies to the National Zoo in Washington DC and key New York City collections: the American Indian Museum and the Cooper Hewitt design museum.

A new Washington DC attraction, the Museum of the Bible, tweeted: “Despite the government shutdown, #DCisopen and so are we! Come experience DC’s newest museum if you are in the area.”

Ford’s Theatre, the location for the assassination of President Lincoln, did not open at the weekend and will remain closed indefinitely. It is run by the National Park Service (NPS).

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, are closed until further notice, though the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas remains open.

And the great outdoors?

“Important Shutdown Notice”, begins an announcement from the National Park Service. “Some parks in the National Park System may have areas that remain accessible to visitors; however access may change without notice, and some parks are closed completely.

The Department of the Interior says: “Staffing levels will be based on the assumption that the NPS is conducting no park operations and providing no visitor services.” But that does not mean that parks are closed: “Park roads, lookouts, trails, and open-air memorials will generally remain accessible to visitors, but there will be no NPS-provided visitor services, including restrooms, trash collection, facilities and roads maintenance.”

I’m after some American heritage

Uncertainty about the effects of the shutdown extends beyond Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone; it also applies to some urban locations designated as National Parks, such as the National Historical Park covering the roots of American independence in Boston. “National Park Service facilities and services in Boston are closed,” says a terse message. Elsewhere on the independence trail, such as in Philadelphia, visitors are being told: “Entry to any NPS property during this period of federal government shutdown is at the visitor’s sole risk.”

I’ve booked an organised trip which I now wish to cancel or postpone because of the shutdown. What are my rights?

Only a specialist package holiday rendered difficult by the government shutdown – for example a cultural tour of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC – would you have the right to cancel or postpone. Most package holidays to the US, together with all independently organised trips, will not qualify for free amendment or cancellation. Suppose you had booked a week based in Las Vegas and were looking forward to exploring some of the nearby National Parks; since the travel firm can still supply the flight and hotel, you have no right to cancel or postpone.

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