Along with cherry trees, Washington tourism blooms

Hotels start to refill after 9/11, with visitors seeing new sights: concrete barriers, helicopter patrols.

The most bitter winters, it seems, lead to the sweetest springs. This year, residents and masses of tourists are again ambling along the paths of Washington's Tidal Basin, taking in the April flourish of pink and white cherry blossoms.

With the Jefferson Memorial blinking out from behind knotty branches, babies gurgle and fuss in their strollers, kids lick popsicles, and dogs strain at leashes to investigate spring's new scents.

This return to an annual ritual – complete with the city's regular influx of about 700,000 tourists – seems a sign that life in the capital is rebounding.

In fact, tourism is coming back faster than many expected. Hotels are mostly full: Occupancy rates have reached pre-Sept. 11 levels – though the average room rate of $157 is $9 lower than at the same time last year. Restaurant traffic is running at about 80 percent of normal. And while the mayor once predicted a $150 million loss in tax revenues because of last fall's attacks, he's reduced his estimate to $40 million or $50 million.

There are certainly drastic differences. The Park Service helicopter – a fixture in DC skies since Sept. 11 – swoops across the Tidal Basin like a giant dragonfly. Strings of Jersey barriers are spreading like concrete-leaved kudzu. The White House, the Capitol, and the FBI have limited tours. Other places are closed to the public indefinitely, including the Pentagon, the Naval Observatory (home to the Vice President's mansion), the Treasury Department, and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

YET there also seems to be a renewed interest in the capital. "Washington matters more," observes David Bailor of the Close Up Foundation, which organizes student trips to DC. "And there's more respect for what elected officials are doing."

Fanny Cramer, mother of two and a computer tech worker from Florida, has come here for her children's spring break. As she fumbles with a map, her daughter, Elizabeth, hoists herself into a cherry tree, smiling and swaying.

Ms. Cramer says she's disappointed that she wasn't allowed to go inside the White House on this visit. (Other than for Monday's Easter egg roll, it's only open to school groups.) Yet that hasn't dampened her excitement. She's coming back in September to see the dedication of the Pentagon's rebuilt wing.

"We have to be here for that," she says. "It's almost an obligation to the country."

To entice people like her, district officials are trotting out everyone from Jackie Kennedy to Martin Sheen.

They're spending $500,000 to promote a new Camelot clothing exhibit at the Corcoran gallery, called "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years." Martin Sheen and other members of "The West Wing" cast have taped public-service announcements promoting the city.

And in hopes of drawing crowds, city officials even agreed to let controversial boxer Mike Tyson fight a heavyweight match here – although Memphis ultimately landed the event.

It's all an effort to ensure that the rebound continues. According to the Labor Department, the region lost 21,000 jobs in the past year, many in the hotel and restaurant industry – though some places are hiring again.

Occupancy rates for the city's 25,000 hotel rooms dropped 25 percent last fall, but have rebounded to about 85 percent; and in three of the past four weeks, they've been higher than in the same period last year.

For tourists who stay away, safety is often the concern. But most who come say they feel fine.

It's not the strings of Jersey barriers that make St. Paul, Minn., resident and Wal-Mart worker Ann Lessor feel safe. "If someone's going to do something, a little barrier isn't going to stop them," she says, standing near the soaring Washington Monument.

Rather, it's the fact that "the national consciousness has been raised" and that "people are very aware – they look out for each other now."

Her sister, Jane Lessor, a safety officer at a food-distribution center in Tomah, Wis., says she feels safe here because, simply, "the human and American spirit is alive again."

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