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.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a similar trip last year, and Villaraigosa's three predecessors each came to the country in search of stronger economic and cultural ties.
Schwarzenegger's trip was designed in part to warn the Chinese against copyright infringement, even as pirated DVDs of his own movies were being sold on Beijing's streets. Villaraigosa said he would tread lightly on the issue as he makes the rounds of Beijing officialdom. "I'm the mayor of Los Angeles, not the president of the United States," he said. "I'm not going to overplay what I can deliver."
Villaraigosa is traveling with a coterie of L.A.'s business and labor elite. Among the 35 people joining his police-escorted contingent in Beijing are county labor federation chief Maria Elena Durazo and David Fleming, a San Fernando Valley resident appointed by the mayor to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Ed Cunningham, the top executive in Asia for Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center; and Barry Sanders, a prominent attorney who is heading up Los Angeles' bid for the 2016 Olympics.
Villaraigosa and the others today will tour Olympic sites that Beijing is preparing for the 2008 Summer Games. The mayor also will visit a school during his time in the Chinese capital before moving on to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Seoul, Tokyo and other cities.
A looming question is whether Villaraigosa, who is notorious for running late in Los Angeles, can stay on schedule as his convoy maneuvers through streets jammed with cars, cabs, buses and bikes.
As his bus rolled along through the narrow side streets of Beijing on Sunday, with his police escort flashing its red lights, people turned their heads and gaped with quizzical expressions, apparently trying to determine which dignitary was in town.
Villaraigosa made an impression on at least one person in Beijing — the young tour operator who stood at the front of the bus explaining the history of the Great Wall and other attractions.
"I think he's very easygoing," said Tong Lei, 27, "not like a mayor but a friend with a smiley face."
Follow City Hall reporter Duke Helfand as he chronicles the sights, sounds and flavor of Villaraigosa's trade mission on the blog "The Mayor in East Asia," at latimesblogs.latimes.com/villaraigosa/