Bad publicity may hurt Olympic turnout

A senior Chinese tourist official admitted on Wednesday that the storm of bad publicity surrounding China in the run-up to this summer’s Olympics could affect the number of foreign visitors to the Beijing Games.

Since the start of this year, southern China has been hit by freak freezing weather, which cut power to millions, there has been violent unrest in Tibet, anti-Chinese protests on the international leg of the Olympic torch relay and now the huge earthquake in Sichuan.

There have also been warnings from Interpol that terrorists may target the Games, and the government has already claimed to have broken up a plot by ethnic Uighurs from China’s restive far western region of Xinjiang to attack the Olympics.

“As to whether or not there will be an impact from the earthquake or anything else, I think maybe there will be some psychological effect on some foreign tourists who don’t understand the situation,” Zhang Huiguang, director of the Beijing Tourism Administration, told a news conference.

“But in reality, Beijing has taken a lot of strong security measures,” she added, in remarks not included in the official webcast of the news conference on the Beijing Games’ website.

“Beijing will not be affected by the Sichuan earthquake,” Zhang said. “We still welcome tourists from around the world to come to Beijing during the Olympics.”

Beijing expects to play host to between 450 000 and 500 000 overseas visitors during the August Olympics, only marginally up from the 420 000 who came in the same period last year, Zhang said, adding that August was normally a low tourist season.

Three months to go

Indeed, with only about three months to go before the opening ceremony, hotels are far from full, she said, with four-star hotels reporting just 44% of rooms are booked for the Games.

“Some travel agents have not yet got hold of Olympic tickets, which is causing problems for some tour groups,” Zhang said. “If they don’t have tickets, some people will also choose not to come as room and car prices will be higher than normal.”

Sky-high prices seem unlikely to help.

The average price for a four-star hotel during the Olympics will be 2 226 yuan ($320,30)—triple that of the year-ago period, added Zhang’s deputy, Xiong Yumei, though one five-star hotel is charing almost 8 000 yuan a night.

And despite China’s public message that it welcomes all to the Olympics, the government has significantly tightened controls on visas in the run-up to the event, which it says are normal for an Olympic host city and needed for security.

Zhang defended the new system, and said those who want to come to the Games should still be able to get visas.

“I think visitors need to comply with our demands, for example providing letters of guarantee from hotels, and they should still be able to smoothly get visas,” she said. “This is due to security considerations. Please everyone understand.”

Still, Beijing’s own tourism publicity warns foreigners that dealing with Chinese officialdom can be difficult.

“If you are staying any length of time, it is wise to apply for a residence permit from the local Public Security Bureau, which tends to be a lengthy form-filling headache,” read an entry in an official English-language guide book published by the Beijing tourism bureau. - Reuters 2008

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