The 16-day National Cherry Blossom Festival is a cherished rite of spring, coloring the capital with delicate pink and white blossoms — and attracting tourists from far and wide. The festival, which began in 1935, brings in at least $126 million to the D.C. metro area each year, according to the National Park Service, making it the city’s largest annual tourism event by far. (Some $3 billion a year from 25 million tourists is pumped into the D.C. economy overall.)
The festival celebrates the 1912 gift of friendship of more than 3,000 trees from Tokyo to Washington, D.C., and this year comes at a critical time, as Japan begins to rebuild after the earthquake and tsunami. To that end, organizers of the 2011 event have partnered with the American Red Cross to raise money for relief and recovery efforts.
The flowering trees, largely concentrated in the Tidal Basin, draw approximately 1 million visitors a year, with 45 percent from out of town, and continuous exposure on the national evening news is priceless, said Stephen Fuller of George Mason University. “The images may be more valuable than the T-shirts [and other gear] that people buy. The exposure Washington gets is similar to that of Monday night football. We couldn’t afford that kind of publicity.”
While most of the festival events are free to the public, for the first time the Japan-America society is charging a $5 entry fee to its street culture fair this year. “If we don’t charge, we’ll go permanently in the red by 2012 and have to stop the street fair,” said John Malott, president and CEO of the Japan-America Society.
The $5 fee will help cover about $400,000 in costs to produce the event, which has drawn about 150,000 people over the past few years, according to Malott. A portion of the money will also go to Japan relief efforts. Expenses for the street fair have been increasing by about 15 percent over the last decade, Malott said; about 4,000 staff, volunteers, government officials and performers are part of the staging process.
Attendance at the Cherry Blossom Festival’s parade is free, but a seat in the grandstand costs $17. The parade includes lavish floats, giant helium balloons, marching bands and performers, and typically draws 100,000 spectators. And what would a parade be without a Cherry Blossom queen?
Fit for a Queen
Each state selects one cherry blossom princess to participate in the parade. The princesses, age 19 to 24, are chosen for their appearance, academics, poise and maturity, among other qualities, and compete to become queen. But unlike most pageants, becoming queen is based solely on the spin of a wheel—not unlike on “Wheel of Fortune.” The queen is then presented with the crown, made of 1,585 pearls and set in a 14-karat gold frame. The most recent appraisal of the crown in 2005 was $300,000, said Kate Gibbs, spokesperson for Destination D.C., the city’s tourism organization.
Naturally food also plays a prominent role in the economic boon for local businesses. Says Gus DiMilo co-owner of TenPenh, a top destination for Asian-Pacific cuisine, “Spring isn’t here unless you have the Cherry Blossom Festival.” His restaurant is optimally located on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Tidal Basin.
DiMilo says proximity to the trees is one reason his place is so popular. In the first week of the festival, he typically sees a 25 to 30 percent increase in business. TenPenh is one of hundreds of local restaurants that offer unique cherry-flavored and blossom-inspired cuisine, such as the Vanilla Bean Pana Cotta with cherry crumble at Café Dupont and Sushi Tempura Shrimp with cherry cream sauce at Asia Nine.
Not only is the festival a cash cow for D.C., it requires year round preparation, said Bill Line of the National Park Service. Some 3,750 trees — the largest single concentration of cherry trees in America — need to be cared for, and horticulturists make rounds on a daily basis.
The average life of a cherry tree is 60 years. Some of the original trees dating back to 1912 are still alive, and the Park Service is serious about protecting them. Visitors are prohibited from taking snippets, and violation of the regulations can result in a citation issued by National Park police officers, Line said. But starting this year, the National Arbor Day Foundation is selling cherry trees for planting, for $5 to $16; proceeds will help defray some of the festival’s expenses. So there’s a legitimate way to take a little piece of the festival home.
Getting to the Blossoms
During last year’s festival, the city’s Metro subway system recorded three of its top five highest weekday ridership days in its 34-year history, with nearly 11 million passenger trips overall. (The average cost of a one-way subway ride is $2.62.)
If they don’t feel like going underground, visitors can enjoy the view from the Potomac River: D.C. Cruises offers two-hour Monument-by-Moonlight cruise for $34. There’s also the National Cherry Blossom gala dinner cruise for $125. And Washington Walks offers a two-hour “Blossom Secret Stroll” for $15. For a complete list of 2011 Cherry Blossom Festival events, click here.
Next year, to commemorate the centennial of the gift of the cherry trees, organizers will host a five-week celebration starting on the first day of spring and lasting through Arbor Day.