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If it's Tuesday, it must be Seoul

L.A.'s mayor returns after a frenetic two-week trade mission to Asia. The tourist-in-chief says the trip has reaped benefits for the city.

October 22, 2006|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — He raced up the steps of the Great Wall of China and swept down fashion runways with slender models on each arm. From Beijing to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Seoul, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has spent the last 16 days barnstorming East Asia in the name of bringing business home.

Villaraigosa concludes his nine-city trade mission today, with a mix of hard deals and intangible agreements.

Some questioned the merits of spending $500,000 in public money to send him and a retinue of aides on the longest overseas trip of his term, joined by business and labor leaders who paid their own way.

But Villaraigosa said the trip was worthwhile because he secured important investments and established relationships that would "transcend time" in a part of the world where personal contact is key to investment opportunities.

In Beijing, he announced the opening of a tourism office, making Los Angeles the only city in the world to have its own marketing operation in the Chinese capital.

In Seoul, he publicized deals that he said would generate more than $300 million of foreign investment in Koreatown, including a new Korean consulate and cultural center, a three-screen movie complex and a condominium and retail development -- although some of the projects had been in the works for months or years.

And in Tokyo, Villaraigosa unveiled a program to promote Los Angeles tourism in 6,800 Japanese convenience stores and elsewhere in the region, and assured executives from a Starbucks-like chain that he would expedite their effort to open 20 to 30 stores around Los Angeles, an investment worth as much as $12 million.

"We want to move this along and see you come to L.A.," Villaraigosa told the businessmen, suggesting they consider sites in Hollywood, Sherman Oaks and the west San Fernando Valley.

Villaraigosa also hyped deals in which he had little involvement.

In Seoul, he touted a pact to bring as many as 100,000 more South Korean tourists to Los Angeles within three years. That agreement was brokered by the Los Angeles-based AmericanTours International, which had cut a separate deal with Air China to bring as many as 175,000 new Chinese tourists to Los Angeles and other cities within five years.

"The mayor can be really great in selling Los Angeles to the international markets," said ATI Chief Executive Noel Irwin Hentschel, who scheduled the announcements to coincide with the mayor's journey.

Still, it was difficult to quantify the trip's financial benefit, partly because many of the agreements that Villaraigosa highlighted will need time to take root.

For example, the mayor headlined two fashion shows in Shanghai and Seoul to promote apparel made by Los Angeles designers. The clothing will be sold in some of those cities' trendiest department stores, but won't arrive until next year.

Economists in Los Angeles said that, regardless of the dollar amount produced by the trip, trolling for business in Asia makes sense at a time when other cities, states and countries are competing to gain footholds in those markets.

Villaraigosa got a good look at some of that competition during a luncheon in Seoul sponsored by the Korea International Trade Assn. He had to share the stage -- and speaking time -- with Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, the lieutenant governors of Alaska and Idaho and the mayor of Honolulu.

"We don't want to be left out [or] leave the impression that we are indifferent," said Ed Leamer, director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast, which analyzes the economic outlook for the nation, California and Los Angeles. "The Asia-Pacific region is undergoing a dramatic surge in growth. The successful cities and regions [elsewhere] will be ones that position themselves firmly as a party to that trade."

Villaraigosa's trip was a grueling and sometimes chaotic march by chartered bus, plane and foot. The delegation left Los Angeles on Oct. 7.

At times, the schedule changed by the hour, particularly in China, where meetings were shifted as Communist Party officials grappled with a corruption scandal. Villaraigosa had to settle for the vice mayors of Beijing and Shanghai after the top officials were suddenly called away, although he was able to meet with some national leaders, including the minister of commerce.

Everywhere he touched down, the mayor and his hosts orchestrated a blitz of news conferences, photo ops, speeches, toasts and handshakes.

Even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger -- whom Villaraigosa met by chance in a Beijing hotel -- remarked that the mayor was being granted "grade A treatment."

Villaraigosa also talked about the need to preserve the environment in cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai that, like Los Angeles, are wrestling with pollution. In meetings with Asian shipping companies, the mayor emphasized the need to burn cleaner fuels at the Port of Los Angeles, and he announced a conference of Pacific Rim ports in December to tackle the issue.

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