Diplomatic Pouch / May 7, 2015
By Larry Luxner
From Azerbaijan's Silk Road Dance Company to a Qatari robot camel jockey, Passport DC's colorful “Around the World Embassy Tour,” now in its eighth year, remains one of Washington's most popular annual signature events.
“Last year, we had 30,000 visitors, and everywhere I went, I was told we had more this year,” said Jan DuPlain of Cultural Tourism DC, which organized the May 2 tour along with Events DC. “This is so special and unique for Washington, because we have more embassies here than anywhere in the world, and it is a perfect festival to be held in the nation's capital.”
It helped that the weather was perfect too, which brought out the crowds.
This year, 43 diplomatic missions, including 41 embassies and two multinational organizations - the African Union and the Arab League - participated. In addition, four countries joined the festivities for the first time: Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Oman. Two of them, Libya and Morocco, held their festivities at the Embassy Row Hotel, along with the Arab League, Rwanda, Fiji and South Africa.
Embassies representing countries on six continents put their best faces forward this year, with a particularly strong showing by Latin American and Caribbean nations.
At the Costa Rican Embassy on S Street, balloon-making, face painting, handicrafts, typical “tico” food and free beer helped lure the crowds on a beautiful spring day. By noon, some 2,000 people had checked in - each of them having gotten their souvenir “passports” symbolically stamped at the entrance by Alejandra Solano, the embassy's deputy chief of mission.
And by the time the event was over, at 5 p.m., exactly 3,832 people had officially visited, up from 2,500 last year. Among them were Shelly McGinnis, who's been to Costa Rica three times, and Jessica Sahota, who was visiting McGinnis from California.
“This is the best one so far,” Sahota said as she consulted a Passport DC pamphlet listing the day's events. “We passed by the Guatemalan Embassy, but the line to get in was over a block long.”
But because the Costa Rican Embassy is located on quiet, tree-lined S Street and not on Massachusetts Avenue - Washington's so-called “Embassy Row” - foot traffic moved along fairly quickly here.
Besides the embassy open houses, the month-long Passport DC also includes street fairs, exhibitions, performances and workshops. Last year, 288,000 people took part in the May 1-31 celebration, which coincides with International Cultural Awareness Month.
“This is a great idea,” said Costa Rican Ambassador Ramón Macaya as he proudly wore his official red La Sele soccer jersey. “Passport DC is a fun way for families to get a flavor for many different countries in a single afternoon.”
Minister-counselor Beatríz Serrano said she's thrilled with the turnout.
“It was a complete success. This is the second year we've participated in Passport DC. According to our survey, 40 to 45 percent of the people who came either plan to visit Costa Rica or already did,” she said. “So this is a way to ensure they'll be coming back.”
As people entered her embassy, they were greeted with a video extolling Costa Rica's natural beauty - its volcanoes, rain forests and beaches. Souvenirs for sale ranged from T-shirts to “Pura Vida” replica license plates. For the kids, there were also animal-shaped balloons, Instaprints and face painting by Congolese artist Aurelie Nsoki.
Throughout the day, hundreds of visitors congregated in the embassy's enormous backyard. But a food stand set up by Maria Rivera and Keylah Garcia - owners of Pura Vida, a northern Virginia catering company - quickly ran out of tamales, picadillo de papaya, gallo pinto, rice, beans and other typical Costa Rican fare.
“We had 60 pounds of tilapia from Puntarenas, but so many people came that the ceviche was gone by 1 p.m.,” said Erick Marín, who with his buddies Javier Gómez and Tatiana Zelaya were busy serving Imperial beer and 25-year aged Centenario rum to thirsty tourists.
Just down the street, visitors happily guzzled Presidente beer at the Embassy of the Dominican Republic, while others savored authentic arroz con pollo [rice and chicken], and a group of elderly dominicanos played - what else - dominos, under the shade of a nearby tree.
The Embassy of Pakistan featured exhibits of paintings and food photography, as well as traditional performances on its vast plaza fronting International Drive, while the Japanese Embassy handed out teriyaki chicken and sushi to visitors, though security there was heavy and the line to get in stretched several blocks along Massachusetts Avenue.
At the Haitian Embassy just down the street, there was practically no line at all.
“This is the third year we've participated in Passport DC with a specific theme of tourism,” said Paul Altidor, Haiti's ambassador in Washington. “Of the 5,000 people who came here today, very few of them would ever think of Haiti as a tourism destination.”
To help change that perception, Altidor made sure his embassy offered visitors rum punch made with Haiti's Rhum Barbancourt, along with a bracelet that says “Haiti” on it with the embassy's website printed below. People touring the embassy also got to take their picture with a replica tap-tap, or colorful bus of the type commonly seen in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Axelle Latortue, a young Haitian-American who studied international development at Georgetown University, said she tries to stay connected to her country's French Caribbean culture while living in Washington.
“I hadn't been to the Haitian Embassy for Passport DC before, so I came to see how Haiti would be presented to the outside world,” she said. “Unfortunately by the time I arrived, the rum punch people were raving about had already run out. But I enjoyed the display of original art and typical Haitian foods - and it was great to meet the volunteers in traditional Haitian clothing who were so excited to share their culture with others.”
DuPlain said of all the 43 missions participating this year, the Philippine Embassy held out the longest, keeping visitors entertained with music and dancing until 8 p.m. - way past the event's official 4 p.m. closing time.
Although festivities are free to the public, embassies must pay $300 a year to join Cultural Tourism DC, plus another $700 specifically to participate in the embassy tour.
“We don't want them to have a one-shot event. We want them to be a part of the Cultural Tourism family for the entire year,” DuPlain said. “What they get for that $300 is a page on our website with access to our database, so that during the entire year, we can promote their embassy's different programs.”
Likewise, the $700 fee pays for advertising, brochures, signs and banners all promoting Passport DC's embassy tour.
“Germany was the first embassy that thought of the idea of doing an open house, before Passport DC was launched,” DuPlain told the Diplomatic Pouch. “Then the Germans asked the other European countries to join them in doing an open house. Once they launched theirs, we at Cultural Tourism DC brought them over to us and said, 'let's go in this together.' So the EU's Open House, which takes place May 9 this year, is now under the umbrella of Passport DC.”
For 2016, DuPlain said she'd like to bring the 35-member Organization of American States as well as the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom) on board.
“We want to see a full house,” said the public-relations executive, noting that three-fourths of Washington's 175 or so diplomatic missions still haven't signed up. “We won't be satisfied until every embassy that can open its doors joins us.”