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DC Cherry Blossom Festival Draws Low Interest from Tourists - 2003-04-04


In Washington, DC, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is underway and will continue through next Monday. VOA's David Clements walked over to see the cherry trees and to talk with people to see if weather and the nation's high terrorism alert levels have had an effect on this annual tourist attraction.

Every year from late March to early April, the first sign of spring in the nation's capital is the National Cherry Blossom Festival. It has evolved into an annual tourist event, attracting people from around the world. The focus of the festival is the thousands of cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, near the Jefferson Memorial.

Dianna Mayhew, Executive director of the Festival, says these trees represent a deep cultural and political friendship. "Ninety-one years ago, Japan gave 3000 trees to Washington, DC," she says. "Actually the first time the trees were donated, they were infested with disease, so they had to be burned. Then they were given again and they were determined to get it right. It worked out wonderfully. Actually we're celebrating the 91st anniversary of the gift of the trees, but the anniversary of the festival is probably about 67-68 years."

During the Festival, visitors are treated to various celebrations and special events. There are daily free cultural performances featuring music, dance, song and martial arts demonstrations. Usually, tourists come from across the nation and around the world to celebrate.

This year, however, the Washington, DC area has had one of the worst winters in recorded history, with record snowfall. The unseasonably cold weather has delayed the peak bloom of the cherry trees. Tourists in the DC area last Sunday, experienced some of that snowfall firsthand. Perhaps most importantly, the country is on high security alert because of the conflict in Iraq. Organizers are wondering if many visitors will be discouraged to come to the Cherry Blossom Festival at all this year.

Marilyn Matthews, co-owner of Washington DC Accommodations, a firm that books hotel reservations in the Washington, DC area, is not optimistic. "I will tell you that it's really been dismal," she says. "The Cherry Blossom Festival this year has been, you know, it's down. I have been in this business for 18 years doing hotel reservations and this is the softest I've ever seen the Cherry Blossom season."

She attributes the slowdown in tourism more to the war than the weather. Perhaps the best indicators of the Festival's significance are the tourists in Washington, DC right now.

The Cherry Blossom Festival clearly wasn't a priority for most of the tourists this week. Despite a possible lower turnout, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is in full swing. Every day, live music can be heard at the Jefferson Memorial, near the site of the cherry trees.

The Washington Toho-Koto Society playing traditional Japanese music celebrating the arrival of Spring and the cherry blossoms. Margaret Kaii-Ziegler is one of the players in the group, says "this is called a Koto. It's a Japanese instrument originally from China. It was brought to Japan in about the 7th century"

The celebration of Japanese culture and its link to the Cherry Blossom Festival is also apparent elsewhere.

At a tent set up by the festival organizers, Anne-Marie Mollar discusses the art and style of the Japanese clothing called the Kimono as she dresses a volunteer, in colorful Wedding attire. "I'm not doing this as properly as I should, but it's also important that the white part of the under-Kimono shows through," says Ms. Mollar. "Many times there are many different layers. It's a sense of opulence."

Ideally, the two-week festival occurs while the cherry trees are in their full splendor of pink flowery blossoms. Unfortunately, when I first visited, only one cherry tree was in bloom. The rest were bare, except for some buds that the Park Service said weren't going to fully bloom until after the end of the festival.

But there's good news for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Despite the heightened terrorism alert, many people have decided to visit the city anyway and are glad they did.

And the good news for the festival doesn't end there. The National Park Service issued an updated forecast stating that the cherry trees will reach peak bloom by April 5. That's the day of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, when marching bands, costumed dance troupes, and special celebrity guests will fill the streets of Washington D.C. with color and music.