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Mayor Takes Great Hopes to Great Wall

Villaraigosa begins a 16-day Asian trade mission by opening an L.A. tourism office in Beijing and then playing tourist at the landmark.

October 09, 2006|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Looking to mine the vast economic riches of East Asia, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched a first-of-its-kind city tourism office here today on the inaugural leg of a 16-day trade mission through China, South Korea and Japan.

The announcement, in a Beijing office complex, was the first of several deals Villaraigosa promised to seal on a trip he predicted would pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the Los Angeles economy.

Traveling with several dozen of Los Angeles' most powerful business and labor leaders, Villaraigosa was eager to pitch the city as a mecca of unbridled opportunity for the expanding markets of China, South Korea and Japan -- the city's top three trading partners, accounting for nearly $170 billion in annual trade.

"L.A. is the crossroads for the emerging economies of the East and the emerging markets of the South," Villaraigosa said in an interview after touring the fabled Forbidden City in central Beijing. "Our ability to connect our diverse city with those economies is the key to our future."

Though trade, tourism and jobs topped Villaraigosa's agenda, the mayor spent most of Sunday, his first day in China, playing tourist -- starting with a visit to the Great Wall, about an hour outside Beijing.

Wearing black leather shoes, a white T-shirt and dress slacks, he bounded up the wall's steep stone steps and into the mist, leaving behind most of his entourage. "I'm going all the way to the top, baby," he shouted as he passed several winded hikers with walking sticks.

Two television cameramen and two photographers followed him up, recording his moves and blocking the narrow passage for tourists, who looked surprised by the commotion.

As he descended 30 minutes later, Villaraigosa encountered half a dozen people who recognized him along the route. He posed for pictures with each -- throwing his arm around a man from Hollywood, a woman from Silver Lake and others from Laguna Beach and Sacramento.

"You from L.A.?" Villaraigosa called to one woman.

"Actually, we're from Orange County," she replied.

"That's close enough," the mayor said.

Afterward, 85-year-old Carolyn Johnson of Fullerton said she was tickled to meet Villaraigosa nearly 6,300 miles from home.

"I just couldn't believe. That's the mayor," Johnson said.

Some of those in Villaraigosa's group offered their own on-the-spot analyses of the Great Wall experience.

"Antonio in China -- 1.3-billion photo ops,' " quipped his friend, Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss.

Councilman Dennis Zine, snapping his own photos of the Great Wall, joked to assorted people standing around Villaraigosa: "Pictures with the mayor, $2."

Those traveling with the mayor, as well as economists in Los Angeles, said the $500,000 price tag for Villaraigosa's trip is worth the investment. (The cost for the mayor and city staffers is being borne by the city's port, airport agency and the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau; businesspeople and others are paying their own way.)

The experts point out that international trade accounts for the largest number of jobs -- about 450,000 -- in Los Angeles County, followed by tourism and film and television production.

Over the course of his two-week tour, Villaraigosa intends to announce more than $200 million in investments by Korean banks and development companies in various Los Angeles construction projects, as well as a promotional tourism campaign targeting customers in thousands of Japanese convenience stores.

The new tourism office, run by the convention and visitors bureau, will target Beijing, and Shanghai and Guangzhou in the south, working with travel agents to develop tour packages to Los Angeles. The office expects to vie for a good share of an anticipated 100 million Chinese travelers who are expected to converge on the United States annually by 2020.

Villaraigosa's aides said Los Angeles would be the first city in the world to open such an office in Beijing, although other states and countries already have similar operations in place.

But business leaders argue that much of Villaraigosa's work on this trip will revolve around building stronger ties to foster future investment.

Toward that end, the mayor's aides said, he met Sunday evening with one of China's top foreign affairs officials, Tang Jiaxuan. The two spent about 30 minutes discussing investments in schools, environmentally sound growth and other common issues. Experts back home said that such meetings make good sense, noting that previous mayors have done the same.

"You have to build relationships in Asia," said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the nonprofit Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., who is not part of the Asia trip. "This is very, very important for the city because we need to create good quality jobs."

Villaraigosa is only the latest official from California to woo China.

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