This year's National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., kicking off Tuesday, is the centennial celebration and is expected to bring record-breaking numbers of tourists and revenue to the city. The festival runs through April 27 — a five-week celebration rather than the usual two.
Washington Mayor Vincent C. Gray called the festival “one of the biggest events, if not the biggest event of the year for Washington, D.C.”
Gray is hopeful visitor revenues during the festival could reach $200 million, “since the economy is better and this year is the centennial,” he told msnbc.com. In 2011, the festival generated $126 million in tourist dollars.
No projections have been made for the number of visitors this year. However, for a frame of reference, about 1 million visitors attend the festival on typical years when the event is two weeks long.
The festival began in 1912, when Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo presented 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington, D.C., in honor of the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan. The gift was coordinated with help from officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Geographic Society; first lady Helen Herron Taft; and Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a chemist who founded Sankyo Co., Ltd., a company now known as Daiichi Sankyo, which sponsors the festival.
The 3,000 trees were planted in the Tidal Basin; almost 100 of these still survive. The Japanese government gave first lady Lady Bird Johnson an additional 3,800 trees in 1965, which were also planted in the Tidal Basin. These were joined last year by more than 160 additional trees, planted at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, located in the Tidal Basin.
The National Park Service predicts the peak bloom period will be March 20-23 with an average peak bloom date of April 4. The trees are expected to bloom into April throughout the city and some of its suburbs.
The centennial festival is bringing many firsts, including a nationally syndicated broadcast of the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade on April 14. The parade will be co-hosted by ABC News special correspondent and former TODAY anchor Katie Couric and "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek.
Also new this year is a “City in Bloom” campaign: The National Building Museum, Newseum, Dulles International Airport, Southwest Waterfront and other buildings will have special pink or blossom lighting from March 28 to April 1, while 240 Capitol One bank branches (Capitol One is sponsoring the campaign) will distribute a “Petal Pass,” with discounts for tickets and merchandise. The United States Postal Service will issue a dual “Forever” stamp in honor of the centennial, while National Geographic has published a new book to mark the anniversary, “Cherry Blossoms: The Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.”
Diana Mayhew, president of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, said a record number of Washington, D.C. restaurants and hotels are participating in festival-related promotions, including more than 100 restaurants — up from 83 last year — and 55 hotels.
Destination DC, the city’s tourism promotion organization, is providing toll-free telephone service (877-44-BLOOM) for inquiries about the festival. "Phones continue to ring with interest," said Elliott Ferguson, Destination DC's president and CEO. "I'd like to say it's going to be phenomenal, bring a lot of international business."
Mayor Gray predicted the centennial festival would provide “a tremendous boost to our image as a welcoming place and as an international city. It demonstrates, too, what the 100-year relationship between the United States and Japan and Washington and Tokyo has done — it’s served us in good times and in bad times.”
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