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In search of tourists, U.S. cities look to Chinese lanterns

Chinese lantern festivals are becoming popular across the U.S. as a way to drive tourism toward local businesses.
A panda lantern from a Lantern Light Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A panda lantern from a Lantern Light Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma.Kristi Eaton / NBC News

TULSA, Okla. — Medium-sized cities across the U.S. have begun hosting lantern light festivals in recent years in an effort to boost tourism and share a bit of Chinese culture.

While similar festivals have taken place in large U.S. cities like San Francisco and New York for decades, events are currently underway in a variety of smaller municipalities, including Tulsa, Oklahoma; Cary, North Carolina; and Columbus, Ohio.

“It’s very colorful. It’s something you don’t see at other places,” Lyman Collins, cultural arts manager for the Town of Cary in North Carolina, said. “Maybe you do in far away other places, but not around here. There’s nothing like it.”

A 400-foot long dragon lantern lays across an open lawn at the Lantern Light Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma.Kristi Eaton / NBC News

The city of Cary has hosted a lantern festival for the past three years and has signed an agreement with the China-based Tianyu Arts & Culture company, to host it for the next four years, Collins said.

Last year, the city of 162,000 saw 90,000 people attend the event, a 75 percent increase over the previous year, he said.

“It’s been successful,” Collins said. “It’s a program that people seem to want to attend. They enjoy it. And it allows us to use the amphitheater at a time we would otherwise not be using it.”

The festival has also been credited with creating the first budget surplus for the local Koka Booth Amphitheater.

Huiyuan Liu, event manager for Tianyu Arts & Culture, said the company focuses on selling a cultural experience to visitors of the festivals. In addition to the Cary festival, the company has organized events in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Spokane, Washington; and Columbus, Ohio; among other cities.

She said that venues often want to host the lantern festivals to help bring in additional visitors. For example, Tianyu Arts & Culture partnered with the botanical gardens in Milwaukee in an effort to increase attendance to the gardens and bring extra revenue to the park.

“They did a really good job in advertising and the lanterns looked beautiful,” she said. “So, eventually, lots of people showed up, and I think 80 to 90 percent of them had never been to the botanical gardens before.”

A lantern at the Lantern Light Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa is one of several medium-sized cities in the U.S. hosting the festivals in recent years.Kristi Eaton / NBC News

Traditionally, the lantern light festival marks the end of the Lunar New Year period and the return of spring, and is seen by many as an important celebration.

Tianyu, which has been around since 1997, recruits 20 to 30 artists from China for each festival, typically lasting several weeks, Liu said. The company plans to host at least eight festivals next year, but possibly more, she added.

In Tulsa, more than 5,000 people have visited the city’s inaugural Lantern Light Festival, put on by the Pinnacle Production Group, said Ryan Howell, events coordinator at the River Parks Authority, which is hosting the event.

“The festival producer… has been touring the nation in several other locations and we thought it would be something unique for Tulsa to enjoy,” Howell said. “The way they construct these lanterns and the sheer size of them is quite a spectacle, so we thought it might be something that the citizens of Tulsa would enjoy.”

It’s been successful. It’s a program that people seem to want to attend. They enjoy it. And it allows us to use the amphitheater at a time we would otherwise not be using it.

Advertising for the show has stretched into Kansas and Missouri, drawing visitors across state lines, Howell noted.

Local food concessions and local acrobats are also used during the performances, which run through Jan. 14.

“It’s a really fun show,” he said. “It’s a touring show, and I think a lot of people don’t realize that these are custom works of art so they’re not like mass produced inflatable bubbles. These are individually crafted works of art.”

In fact, each lantern is designed by hand, said Sanjay Syal, president of Pinnacle Production Group.

“They are all constructed by hand using an artist who draws the lanterns to full scale and all the metal is bent — everything from the actual drawing of the lantern itself to all the metal that goes into it — the lighting, the wiring, and all the airbrushing to give it the final detail,” Syal said. “So it’s basically done completely by hand.”

Though the company hosts such festivals all year, they tend to be most popular around Christmas time, he said.

Hosting such an enormous event isn’t cheap. It costs about $1.5 million to $2 million to put a festival on, Syal said. Many communities look at it as a tourism draw.

“It’s a once in a life-time opportunity. It’s like Disney coming to you,” he said. “The photos and videos look impressive, but when you’re standing next to a 400-foot dragon, it looks even more impressive."

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