Posted by: eureka | June 22, 2008

Visa Limits Undermine Beijing’s Tourism Hopes

BEIJING: 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.

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.

he 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.

Nothing is hurting more than the visa policy. Business executives, particularly from the United States, Hong Kong and Taiwan, have complained that new visa restrictions have crimped deal-making in the run-up to the Olympics.

Many Hong Kong executives, for example, say visa rules were tightened in April, forcing them to apply more frequently for visas, and often required proof of a hotel booking, round-trip airline tickets, and in some cases, a letter of invitation.

“This is not good for business,” said Richard Vuylsteke, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which represents American companies doing business in the region. “It’s kind of draconian from some point of view. But politics and security trumps economics, especially during the Olympics. We just hope that after the Olympics things will change.”

Hotel operators are also frustrated. A massive hotel building boom – which has bolstered the number of four- and five-star hotels in Beijing from about 64 in 2001 to 161 as of April 30, according to government figures – is beginning to look frothy. Many operators are depressed.

“Usually May and June are the busy season for our hotel,” said Jiang Zhiqiang, a spokesman for the New Otani Changfugong Hotel in Beijing. “This year is quite unusual. I think several natural and man-made disasters happened subsequently, which hurt our business.” With the opening ceremony of the Olympics just seven weeks away, only about 44 percent of four-star and about 77 percent of five-star hotel rooms are booked in Beijing, according to the Beijing Tourist Bureau.

And if visitors cannot get visas to enter the country, many of those hotels will have to slash rates, which had jumped to as high as $2,000 a night when prospects were brighter.

In some ways, the hotels are also on the front lines of the security crackdown. They typically share guest lists with the government. But now they are being asked to supply photographs of all their employees to help the government in visa approvals.

Chinese-owned hotels may be the worst hit, because many are still building frantically to prepare for a huge number of foreign visitors who were expected to descend upon the city beginning in late July.

Many large tourist agencies – hoping to thrive in the Olympic calendar – have already surrendered.

“Now most of my colleagues for inbound tourism don’t come to work,” said Wang Ge, director of the inbound tourism department at the Beijing Tourism Group. “We have no clients this month. Our business is bleak. We expected a booming business before the Olympics, but now it’s disappointing.”



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