Three days into his 11-day trip to Asia, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams on Monday spoke in glowing terms of Beijing's energy and said Washington has much to learn from the way China's capital sells itself as a tourist destination.
"It's almost the brashness. You're overwhelmed by the vitality of the place," Williams (D) said in an interview at the Beijing Hotel just off Tienanmen Square, the vast esplanade where Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of Communist China in 1949.
The mayor led a 30-member delegation of D.C. officials and business leaders to Beijing for a four-day visit ending Tuesday. The trip, to be continued with stops in Shanghai, China's largest city, and Bangkok, the capital of neighboring Thailand, is designed to promote trade and reciprocate for a visit to Washington in May by Beijing's mayor, Wang Qishan, Williams said.
After a weekend of sightseeing, Williams and his party met Monday with Yu Junbo, chairman of the Beijing Municipal People's Congress Standing Committee, and Wang. The mayor was to meet Tuesday with Liu Qi of the Communist Party's Beijing central committee and attend a banquet hosted by Vice Mayor Zhang Mao.
Like most first-time visitors to Beijing, Williams said he was caught up by the rapid economic growth over the past 15 years, which has given the city a fast-paced urban rhythm and a gloss of prosperity. After visits over the weekend to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall, Williams, who described himself as a student of cities, said he was also impressed by Beijing's sense of itself and its history as a world capital.
"It's a moving experience," he said. "It really is."
On the face of it, Beijing and the District of Columbia have little in common. This city, with a population of 13 million, is the capital of a country ruled by an authoritarian Communist Party government. Washington, has 560,000 residents and is the capital of the world's leading democracy.
But Williams rejected as "hogwash" suggestions back home that his trip here was a waste of time and money.
As capitals, Beijing and Washington have set up a sister-cities relationship that includes a schedule of visits by both cities' officials, Williams explained. More concretely, he added, Washington hopes to attract business from amid this country's growing number of well-to-do people, chiefly by welcoming them as tourists.
A number of Chinese have begun vacationing abroad, particularly in such neighboring countries as Thailand. But many, even those with money to spend, are discouraged from the idea of a trip to the United States because of difficulties obtaining a U.S. visa.
The American Chamber of Commerce in China complained last month that the number of U.S. visas granted to Chinese citizens fell 37 percent last year from the pre-9/11 level because of restrictions and delays imposed by security-conscious U.S. officials. "Delays and the difficulty of obtaining U.S. tourist visas are diverting these new tourists to other countries," the Beijing-based U.S. business group concluded.
William A. Hanbury, president and chief executive of the Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp., said city officials were told in meetings with U.S. Embassy officials that the embassy staff is not big enough to handle the flood of applications. After what they learned in Beijing, D.C. officials will lobby Congress to fund increased staffing for the embassy and consulates in China to enable them to process visas more quickly for businessmen and tourists, he said.
Williams also said that because Washington does not fund tourism promotion on the same level as other world capitals, it has much to learn from Beijing's efforts. He said he was particularly impressed by a video he was shown that sings Beijing's praises as a tourist destination and as the site of the 2008 Olympic Games.
"I think I learned a lot about what they're doing with technology," he said, citing Washington's own efforts to develop an exposition center for visitors.
Williams said he also was left more than a little envious after learning of the power Beijing wields in dealing with the national government. With Beijing's kind of clout, he suggested, he might be able to protect Washington from the "helter-skelter" street closures that federal security officials often impose on the U.S. capital.
"It's a much more equal playing field," he said.