The National Cherry Blossom Festival will kick off March 22 despite the effect of the snowy winter on the blooms and the impact of war talk on tourists, organizers said yesterday.

The unseasonably cold weather prompted the chief horticulturist of the National Park Service to delay his prediction on the peak bloom of the famous 3,750 Japanese Yoshino cherry trees. And Monday night, Japan sent word that 250 performers, scheduled to attend various festival events, had canceled their trip.

"It's a tough time to pull together these types of things," said Ole Orset, president of the Downtown Jaycees, the producers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade. The parade will step along Constitution Avenue on April 5.

"People think there will be a war and they're afraid to take the leap," he said. "This year, we're going to have to rely on the locals and the Americans."

Nonetheless, Orset made his own prediction at yesterday's news conference, offering a little humor to help ease concerns -- either about a late cherry bloom or the area's security situation.

"I'm happy to announce that the code level on April 5 will be Code Pink," Orset said.

The festival will begin March 22 with the traditional opening ceremony at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, featuring Japanese dance troupes; Japan's ambassador to the United States, Ryozo Kato; D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D); and representatives of the National Park Service, Japanese-American cultural societies and other participating organizations. It will end April 7.

This year's festival will commemorate the 91st anniversary of the planting of the Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. It also will mark the beginning of a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of formal relations between Japan and the United States, which started with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in Japan in 1853.

Because most festival events are free and do not require reservations, it is hard to predict attendance, said Diana Mayhew, executive director of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. But she said advance sales of tickets for events that do require them are on target compared with the same time in previous years.

"We feel good about it," she said.

William A. Hanbury, president of the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp., also said the city's and area's hotel occupancy rates are almost the same as they were last year. Although those rates are still lower than they were before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said visitors have "come back to the capital in a very strong way." And he said Washington has suffered less of a drop-off in tourism compared with other large cities "because we are a drive-to city."

What could affect the number of visitors, however, is a war against Iraq, he said.

"We're kind of holding our breath a little bit this spring. If a conflict starts, it won't only affect Washington, D.C., but the entire country," Hanbury said.

The question of when the cherry blossoms will be in full bloom will not be addressed until Monday. Gentry Davis, deputy regional director of the National Park Service, said yesterday that Rob DeFeo, who has offered the bloom forecast for years, said there was nothing to report yet.

"At this time, he said, it is almost impossible to make a prediction of the blooming date as a result of the severe weather we've had this year," Davis said.

In an interview last week, DeFeo said his forecast was still "up in the air." The buds on the cherry trees must go through five stages before they bloom, starting off with a slight greening that usually occurs in early March. "But there's nothing yet," he said.

"I've had it with this winter," DeFeo said. "And that's what makes the festival a little more significant this year. The blooming of the trees signifies the end of winter and the start of spring, and I think everybody's ready for that."

The schedule of festival events includes several sports tournaments and a 10-mile race; musical and martial arts performances at the Jefferson Memorial and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center; special activities at the Capital Children's Museum; a kite festival on the Mall; cherry tree planting ceremonies throughout the District; and a Japanese lantern lighting ceremony at the Tidal Basin. A schedule of all the events of the festival may be found at www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.

Mayhew said the festival has added two new sponsors this year: the D.C. Lottery and Charmin. The lottery has introduced a new $2 scratch-off game called Cherry Blossom Change, and Charmin is sending a 27-stall restroom facility -- complete with aromatherapy, attendants, a television screen in each stall, hardwood floors and baby-changing stations. It will be parked near the Sylvan Theater on the Mall.

"We're going to treat our tourists in style," Mayhew said.

The Park Service's Gentry Davis, unable to offer a blossom forecast, receives a paper bloom from Akiko Keene of the Japanese Cherry Blossom Association.Metro's Steven Taubenkibel hands out passes at National Cherry Blossom Festival news conference. Watching is Redskins Hogette Mike "Big Mac" McCartney.