Home The Washington Diplomat March 2009 Opening Doors, Again

Opening Doors, Again


Get Passport Stamped a Second Time With Popular Embassy Showcase

Forget 180 days. All you need to go around the world is two weekends in Washington, where visitors and residents alike can step onto foreign soil at Cultural Tourism DC’s second annual Passport DC embassy showcase.

On Sat., May 2, embassies ranging from Angola and Australia to Saudi Arabia and Serbia will throw open their doors for visitors to experience the music, dance, crafts and cuisine of their respective nations. In addition to the May 2 open houses, a European Union open house is scheduled for Sat., May 9, as is the Meridian International Center’s International Children’s Festival, an interactive and educational fun-fair that introduces children and their families to embassies from around the world. Participating embassies are also invited to host various related events ranging from music, dance, film, culinary tastings and exhibitions — all of which are open to the public and most of which are free.

The showcase follows the success of the 2008 inaugural Passport DC, which featured cultural programming that attracted 150,000 visits to dozens of area embassies over the course of two weeks last spring. The panoply of international fare included such diverse offerings as live steel-pan drumming at Trinidad and Tobago, an outdoor Pakistani art market, and Macchu Pisco liquor tastings at Peru. (For coverage of last year’s Passport DC, see “Beyond the Mall” in the April 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat and “Passport to Washington’s Embassies” in the Feb. 28, 2008, news column of the Diplomatic Pouch.)

“I think it’s really a wonderful activity that begins to allow folks to understand those sort of mystical and magical things that we call embassies,” said Linda Harper, executive director of Cultural Tourism DC. “It’s really sort of one-on-one diplomacy.”

Cultural Tourism DC decided to expand on this direct diplomatic outreach after a highly popular open house held by member countries of the European Union in 2007, which drew more than 35,000 visitors to EU embassies. An independent nonprofit coalition of more than 200 organizations, Cultural Tourism DC helps area residents and visitors experience Washington’s culture and heritage — outside the National Mall — through neighborhood trails, art exhibitions and other events. And a big part of the city’s personality that tends to get overlooked is its unique international presence, Harper pointed out.

“What most people think is that they don’t have access to the embassies,” she said. “They don’t realize that the embassies have fabulous cultural programs. Many of the embassies have weekly or monthly programs — concerts, art exhibits, programs for children, cooking lessons, dance lessons.”

And many of those programs are very reasonably priced or free, she noted. “Certainly in this economy, it’s a wonderful way to travel,” Harper said. “We may not be able to make that trip to Africa or to Thailand or some country or continent right now, but we certainly can begin to explore by taking a part in this real open diplomacy, and begin to learn about those countries and maybe begin to schedule where we want to go in the future.”

That’s one of the reasons the Embassy of Kazakhstan chose to participate again in the program, said Zhanbolat K. Ussenov, assistant to the ambassador and second secretary for the press.

“The main reasons for our embassy’s participating in the Passport DC program, first of all we believe that the program is very nice in its outreach to the people here in Washington, to locals,” Ussenov explained. “And since the capital of the United States happens to be Washington [and] we happen to live here as the representatives of Kazakhstan, our strategy is to bring the name of Kazakhstan to as many local people as possible.”

Last year, the embassy expected about 100 visitors as part of its Passport DC open house, but 600 passed through its doors. This year, the embassy will be featuring a new exhibition that highlights traditional Kazakh gowns and ancient weaponry in addition to music and food samples.

“What is most important to us is to make our guests feel comfortable, feel at home, and really make them want to visit Kazakhstan,” Ussenov said.

The Embassy of Bangladesh is also scheduled to make a repeat appearance this year. “Not many people in this part of the world know much about Bangladesh other than negatives, so we thought that we have so many positive strengths in our country and in our people we should present them to the outside world,” said Monwar Hossain, first secretary at the embassy.

In December, an election ushered in the return of democracy in Bangladesh, so the embassy plans to include a presentation about politics in this nation of 150 million, Hossain said. On a lighter note, he added, there’s talk of offering henna body painting and a food festival.

Other participating countries include Australia, Chile, Haiti, Japan, Morocco and Pakistan. Newcomers to the showcase include Angola, Bahrain, Cape Verde, Nepal, Serbia and Thailand, Harper said.

“Since Thailand is a unique country in terms of history, traditions and culture, we wanted to express that through a variety of different activities that appeal to our guests of all ages,” said Sumont Wisartsakul, second secretary at the Royal Thai Embassy.

Those activities include traditional dance and classical musical performances; a fruit-carving demonstration; an exhibition of historic photographs depicting U.S.-Thai relations; a painting display; an introduction to Thai film, literature and handicrafts; tourism information; free souvenirs; and vendor-provided Thai massages, food, drinks and beer. The menu will likely include som tam (papaya salad), lab kai (spicy ground chicken), yam woon sen (Thai glass noodles with prawns) and por pia tod (fried spring rolls), Wisartsakul noted.

Traditional delicacies are just one example of the personal touch embassies are incorporating as they reach out to curious visitors, both from within Washington and outside the nation’s capital. Harper pointed out that ambassadors personally greeted people at the door and let them sit in their chairs in their offices last year.

“It’s about their artwork and it’s about their music,” she said, “but it’s also about learning those little pieces about their culture that really allows you to begin to feel and understand that this is one big world and we’re all a part of it and we have as many similarities as we have differences.”

Please note: The Washington Diplomat will be serving as an official media sponsor of Passport DC.

About the Author

Stephanie M. Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.