- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

An abnormally cold winter and the prospect of war have organizers concerned about the success of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Since the planting of the 3,000 Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in 1912, the annual arrival of the pink and white blossoms has signaled the beginning of tourist season in Washington.
But there were more geese than tourists on the Ellipse near the Washington Monument yesterday as officials outlined the program for the 17-day festival, which starts March 22 and typically draws more than 700,000 people.
"The severe cold winter that we've had has delayed the trees and the start of blooming," said Gentry Davis, deputy regional director of the National Park Service.
Officials plan to make a prediction on the peak blooming period Monday.
Although many are certain the buds will produce blossoms, officials are concerned that world events will quell enthusiasm for travel to Washington, considered a target rich for terrorists.
"American families are the most fickle of all travelers, and they start shutting down a little bit once there's a crisis in the air," said Bill Hanbury, president of the city's Convention and Tourism Corp.
Hotel occupancy rates for the Washington area are flat but outpacing the national trend.
"It isn't going to get much better if we have a conflict," Mr. Hanbury said, noting that the region's tourism did not recover for a year after the Persian Gulf war more than a decade ago.
"The timing of the war could not be worse," said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting member of Congress who serves on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.
After the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, the city produced public service announcements featuring President Bush and top Democrats and Republicans to help persuade the public to visit the city.
Mrs. Norton said a similar promotional campaign might be needed this year.
The attack didn't dampen enthusiasm for the festival last year, say officials at Metro, who said ridership for the 2002 festival was almost 8.9 million, up from almost 7.8 million a year earlier.
The figures are the most reliable indication of how many people travel downtown, because the National Park Service doesn't provide crowd estimates.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams said tourists should feel secure.
"With more than a dozen agencies actively working to ensure the security of visitors and with hospitality venues following established security procedures, the district remains one of the safest cities in the country," Mr. Williams said.
In addition to marking the 91st anniversary of the arrival of the trees, this year's festival commemorates the 150th anniversary of Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival in Japan, which led to formal relations between the two countries.
"This festival is a key national treasure," said Diana Mayhew, executive director of the festival.
She said telephone inquiries and Web site hits are an indication that interest in the blossoms and the festival remain high.

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