Ron Edmonds  /  AP file
Cherry Blossoms frame the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, April 7, 2005. This year's National Cherry Blossom Festival runs March 25-April 9th.
updated 3/23/2006 7:28:27 PM ET 2006-03-24T00:28:27

Officials in the nation's capital are preparing for the 2006 National Cherry Blossom Festival, an event expected to bring more than a million visitors to the city and pump millions of dollars into the region's economy.

"It's been bigger and bigger every year," Mayor Anthony A. Williams said of the two week event marking the start of the District of Columbia's peak tourism season. This year's festival runs March 25-April 9.

While the 3,000 flowering cherry trees planted around the Potomac River Tidal Basin remain the central attractions, annual tree plantings in the district's eight wards have spawned other events, including the  Cherry Blossom Festival in a working-class neighborhood east of downtown.

"We are presenting over 200 performances and demonstrations throughout the two weeks," said Diana Mayhew, executive director of the festival. Corporate sponsorship and year-round promotional efforts on the organization's Web site have generated widespread interest in the program, Mayhew said.

A parade, fireworks and a Japanese cultural celebration will "paint our town pink," said festival president Sue Porter.

The festival commemorates the March 27, 1912, planting of the first two cherry trees by First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador. A few of the original 3,020 trees donated to Washington on behalf of the Japanese capital of Tokyo remain. Others were cultured from cuttings taken from the original trees.

"New York owns Christmas and shopping, and we own the spring and cherry blossoms," said William A. Hanbury, president of the Washington Convention and Tourism Corporation. According to agency research, 36 percent of the people who attend the festival are visitors from beyond the Washington region.

Hotel occupancy during the festival averages 84 percent, or 12 percent above seasonal levels.

While weather determines the peak blooming period for the cherry blossom trees, nighttime temperatures near or below freezing have allowed most trees to remain dormant during the area's mild winter.

"Barring an ice age," this spring's cherry blossoms should be at their peak during the designated period, National Park Service horticulturist Robert DeFeo predicted at a news conference March 9.

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Panda-viewing: Timed passes to see the 8-month-old panda at the National Zoo are free but they can be hard to get. Check the Web site for availability. A limited number of same-day passes are also handed out daily beginning at 8 a.m. at the Panda Information Booth inside the zoo. Passes run out early in the day but if you arrive first thing, you can often get a good look at the panda and his family before the crowds arrive.

Kite festival, March 26, near the Washington Monument.

National Gallery of Art: On the National Mall between Third and Seventh Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. Exhibits on Cezanne through May 7 and Dadaism through May 14. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Washington Convention and Tourism Corp.: (800) 422-8644

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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