- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

The blooms of the 3,750 cherry trees that frame the Tidal Basin are expected to bring 1 million visitors to the District during the 16-day National Cherry Blossom Festival, the District’s signature tourist event which begins today, National Park Service officials say.

In other parts of the country, people look for robins and other signs of spring, but here in the Washington, D.C. area, it’s when we see these cherry blossoms, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said, standing near the Tidal Basin yesterday morning.

The festival’s executive director, Diana Mayhew, said to better handle the crowds, there’s now interest in spreading out the time people visit the blossoms and in encouraging people to explore beyond the Tidal Basin.

Ms. Mayhew said closing a 180-spot parking lot near the Tidal Basin will create a better experience for visitors and D.C. residents than in years past when the area was bottlenecked. The lot will hold a welcome tent, a first-aid station and vendors selling Japanese-inspired food.

To redirect crowds and cars, a free bus service will shuttle visitors from a nearby parking lot at Hains Point at East Potomac Park to the Tidal Basin every 20-30 minutes from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. A free bicycle valet service will also aid in traffic congestion.

Parrie Henderson-O’Keefe, a D.C. resident, yesterday brought her four children to the Tidal Basin as she does each year, aiming for a less crowded day, she said.

Lorraine Waid and her family traveled from 30-degree Jefferson, Ohio, to the perfect and breezy Tidal Basin yesterday. She and her family were visiting her daughter, a D.C. resident, after coming last year during the festival. Mrs. Waid was one of the nearly 500,000 visitors who will travel from outside the D.C. area to the national Mall in the next two weeks.

At the National Arboretum in Northeast, visitors can walk and drive around the 466 acres, following pink signs to see over 2,000 ornamental cherry trees on a self-guided tour. While the Tidal Basin area is home to mostly Yoshino cherry trees, the Arboretum holds more than 50 types of flowering cherry trees.

Margaret Pooler, a research geneticist at the National Arboretum, said, If people have just fallen in love with the cherry blossoms and they want to see more, they can extend the bloom season because they’re in bloom longer [at the Arboretum] because we have different types.

The annual festival, begun in 1935, generates about $184 million for the District, and the calendar holds more than 200 cultural events, sporting events and arts events. Tonight’s opening ceremony includes a jazz concert by Tateshina High School of Japan and the Howard University Jazz Ensemble.

Five college-age goodwill ambassadors, who are students of Japanese language and culture, will be the face of the festival, said Tom Lotito, 22, an ambassador who studied in Japan last year. The students will emcee events, help visitors learn more about the history behind the festival, and join in the parade on April 12.

Mr. Lotito said the two-week festival gives an opportunity for people who don’t know much about Japan to learn. It’s about celebrating spring, and it’s a symbol of friendship between the two nations, so anyone can enjoy it, he said.

Another addition to this year’s festival, which marks the 96th anniversary of the gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Japan, is Paddles the Beaver, a brown furry mascot that stands over 6 feet tall, who will entertain children at the Tidal Basin and remind visitors to take only pictures, not blossoms.

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