Visa limits undermine Beijing's tourism hopes
Monday, 23 June 2008

The plush lobby of the Kerry Center Hotel in Beijing is usually crowded with foreign guests this time of year, most of them lounging in Centro, a hip bar, listening to jazz and sipping martinis, or queuing up in the taxi line after power dinners at the Horizon restaurant, The Herald Tribune reports.

But Thursday evening, Centro had only a sprinkling of guests in a hotel whose occupancy rate is typically close to 100 percent during this time of the year. Tonight, the duty manager said after tapping a few computer keys, it stood at just 63 percent.

"I really don't know what happened," said Sun Yin, the duty manager. "Something strange has been going on."

The problem, it seems, is that with the Olympics less than two months away, China has been restricting foreign visitors from entering the country in the hope of guarding against terrorist threats or unruly visitors who might plot to disrupt the Games, which begin Aug. 8.

The government appears to be approving fewer tourist visas. Business executives say they face new bureaucratic hurdles to visiting the city. And hotels are being asked to give the government detailed information about foreign guests.

The measures, combined with the tragic news about the powerful earthquake in Sichuan Province last month, have already sapped tourism in China and cast a pall over Beijing during what was supposed to be a busy and jubilant tourist season leading up to the Olympics.

The high published rates for Beijing hotels during the summer and difficulty getting Olympic tickets have also dampened expectations, even though many five-star rated hotels say they are fully booked during the Olympics.

Still, because things are looking so bad now, for a wide range of hotels, many economists are beginning to doubt whether Beijing will get the kind of windfall it was hoping for during the Games, which analysts had once forecast would bring 500,000 foreign visitors and an extra $4.5 billion in revenue to the city this summer.

Instead, in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, Beijing hotels are struggling to find guests; some large tourist agencies have closed for the summer; people traveling here for seminars and conferences are canceling.

Residents are also complaining that heightened security measures could spoil what was expected to be Beijing's coming out party.

Indeed, after years of preparation and mammoth building projects centered on this city's playing host to the Olympics, including teaching thousands of taxi drivers English and instructing local citizens on how to queue up in line (not something common here), Beijing is looking a little less welcoming for foreigners.

Thousands of hotels, restaurants and tourist agencies that were hoping to cash in on Olympic fever are now facing the prospect of empty rooms, tables and tour buses. Many developments are supposed to be complete in mid-July.

"Business is so bleak," said Di Jian, the sales manager at the Capital Hotel in Beijing. "Since May, very few foreigners have checked in. Our occupancy rate has dropped by 40 percent."

The government does not seem to have come to its decision lightly. In a year plagued by riots in Tibet, protests of the Olympic torch relay, a terrorist plot to kidnap journalists covering the Olympics (according to Beijing officials) and the Sichuan earthquake, the government is stressing public safety, above all else.

Beijing appears less concerned about being the host of a global party, experts say, and more concerned with making sure no one spoils it.

"In order to secure a safe environment in Beijing, we will carry the new visa policy for a certain time," Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a May news conference. "This new visa policy is just temporary, not a permanent one."

If there were any doubts about Beijing's priorities, they were made clear Thursday, with the announcement that 100,000 commandos, police officers and army troops would be placed on high alert during the Games, signaling that China is prepared for anything.

The heightened sense of alert over security threats in the capital has done something else too: it has spawned a huge rumor mill about other actions the government may be taking.

Among the reports: the border with North Korea has been closed; foreign students and migrant workers are being asked to leave Beijing during the Olympics; and all outdoor parties planned for the three-week-long Olympic celebration have been canceled, putting the hex on all the fun everyone expects to have during the Games.

Many of the reports cannot be confirmed by Beijing officials, but poor communication about policy and security measures is contributing to the chaos.

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