For Beijing’s businesses, the Games fall short of gold

Tourism has been hurt by visa controls, high prices, and unrest in Tibet.

Elizabeth Dalziel/AP
Come on in: Business at a Beijing store near Workers Gymnasium has not been as good as owners had hoped.

A global event like the Olympics is normally the goose that lays the golden egg for a city’s hospitality industry. It should mean hordes of visitors caught up in the exuberance of the Games and their surroundings, eager to spend on hotels, meals, and travel.

But as Beijing 2008 heads into its final lap, the promise of a tourism bonanza remains unfulfilled. Hoteliers are struggling to fill rooms. A media center for journalists not accredited to the Games is mostly empty of foreigners. Families hoping to rent a spare room to foreign guests have waited in vain.

“We were expecting over 2 million people to come to Beijing for the Games. We may find in the end it was less than 600,000,” says the sales manager for one luxury hotel here. Official figures will not be released for another month.

Sky-high hotel prices – as much as $1,000 a night for a three-star hotel – may have hurt bookings. But hoteliers, tourist officials, and foreign consultants to the Olympics mainly blame the difficulty many foreigners have faced in obtaining visas, and negative perceptions of the host nation.

Tourism had already suffered this year after unrest in Tibet sparked protests in the West against the international Olympic torch relay. That controversy led some Western leaders to mull a boycott of the opening ceremonies. Most later agreed to attend, but the damage done to China’s image has lingered.

“Many, many clients did not want to come because of perceptions of China and the Tibet issue. Another issue was all the visa problems and restrictions before the Games,” says the hotel sales manager.

Tighter visa controls did not just dissuade visitors from coming; they also drove out thousands of itinerant foreigners and overseas students living here. Authorities also sent home Chinese students not from Beijing and enforced household registration rules more strictly.

“The main problem is that government has thrown so many people out of the city, foreigners and Chinese alike, and it’s so quiet. Hotels are feeling the pain,” says Gilbert van Kerckhove, a business consultant in Beijing who has advised the Games organizers.

Though security appeared to drive much of China’s attitude to foreigners at the Games, some observers wonder about the purpose behind the policy. “They made it hard to get tickets and hard to get visas. The impression they gave was that they didn’t want foreigners to come,” says one foreign Olympics consultant.

Operating from a converted hotel outside the Olympic Green, the Beijing International Media Center was designed for 10,000 foreign journalists not accredited by their national Olympic committees. In fact, only 3,000 registered there, a BIMC official says.

On a recent visit, most using the facilities and attending briefings were Chinese news crews. The center was also crowded with 800 volunteers ready to help but with little more to do than watch the Games on TV.

Beijing tourism officials said that before the Olympics they expected as many as 500,000 foreign tourists to come during the Games, including arrivals from Hong Kong and Macau, as well as self-ruled Taiwan. That would have been up from the capital’s 420,000 visitors last August but now seems an unreachable target. Arrivals in June and July this year were significantly lower than 2007 figures.

Tourism officials, who have declined to issue data until after the Games, are putting on a brave face. Last week, Wang Zhifa, deputy head of China’s National Tourism Administration told a press conference here that nearly one-fifth of hotel rooms in Beijing were empty, but predicted tourism would pick up after the athletes go home.

“Generally speaking, regular visitors will avoid the peak period during the Olympics Games. Only athletes, coaches, and fans will visit then,” he said.

That analysis doesn’t square with the projections of Beijing’s hoteliers, who are slashing room rates online.

Since 2001, the stock of starred hotels has grown from 500 to more than 800, and many existing hotels refitted rooms ahead of the Games. A year ago, some quoted rooms at up to 10 times the standard price amid predictions of a massive boom.

Calls last week to some dozen mid-range hotels around Beijing, though, reveal that many still have unsold rooms and are prepared to cut prices. Asked if they could accommodate a late booking of 60 rooms, most readily agreed. Nearly all said they had undertaken renovations over the past two years. Many hotels said they had less than two-thirds occupancy.

Homestay programs have been an even bigger flop. The Lotus Education Foundation, a US-based nonprofit that runs one such program, lined up 1,000 host families for an expected Olympics boom.

But only 20 visitors have shown up, says Lisa Sheng, a program manager. “It’s lower than we expected. It’s because China’s policy is very restrictive and it’s not easy to get visas,” she says.

A government-run homestay program to match Olympics tourists with Beijing families has enjoyed no greater success. Touted as an option for foreigners who wanted an up-close cultural experience, the program certified 598 homestays. Houses had to offer a clean, ventilated guest room and have at least one family member conversant in English. But less than 50 have so far received guests, according to a Beijing tourism official who blamed the lack of participation on the difficulty of getting visas and tickets.

“It’s like a dish,” he says. “We cooked the dish and nobody is eating it.”

Steve Burckhalter contributed to this report.

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