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Latest no-shows for Beijing Olympics: Tourists

On Tiananmen Square, visitors take photos and a street-cleaner sweeps.
On Tiananmen Square, visitors take photos and a street-cleaner sweeps. Alan Solomon / Chicago Tribune / MCT

BEIJING — China says the welcome mat remains out for tourists who want to attend the Beijing Summer Olympics, but foreigners apparently view the invitation as a little prickly.

Tightened visa regulations, a major earthquake in southern China, unrest over Tibet and a scarcity of tickets to Olympics events have combined to slow the torrent of foreigners once forecast for this summer.

When the Olympic Games begin Aug. 8, television cameras are likely to pan over venues filled largely with Chinese faces, few foreigners among them.

Some Chinese academics think it's just fine that foreigners stay away.

"If they don't come, we'll be better off," said Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. "The city is already very crowded."

China still estimates that 450,000 to 550,000 foreigners will arrive for the Olympic Games, joining 1 million domestic tourists. But foreign tourism has fallen sharply, and experts question whether the estimates are still accurate.

Tourist arrivals in the capital in May fell 14.2 percent from a year earlier, the state Xinhua news agency said recently, ascribing the fall to tighter regulations on visas.

"July looks scary for the majority of hotels," said Derek A. Flint, the general manager of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Beijing's financial district.

Flint said his hotel was booked for the period around the 16 days of the Olympic Games, but reservations at many luxury hotels like his own drop off afterward.

"We're worried about September, because the visa restrictions are going to continue until Oct. 16," Flint said.

Without explanation, China last month tightened its requirements for obtaining a visa, often demanding proof of a hotel booking, pre-paid round-trip air tickets and in some cases, a letter of invitation. Foreign business owners, airlines, luxury hotels and others affected by the restrictions have protested to no avail.

China apparently imposed the restrictions to lessen the likelihood that foreign activists may slip in and attempt to disrupt the Olympics.

Adding to the visa problems is the perception that Beijing's 5,892 hotels are fully booked or exorbitantly priced to keep tourists away.

In fact, more than half of all four-star hotel rooms are still available during the Olympic Games, and nearly a quarter of five-star hotel rooms remain vacant, the Beijing Tourism Bureau says.

As in most Olympic host cities, Beijing hotels jacked up their rates for the games. Four-star hotels charge about $320 per room per night, three times the rate of a year ago. Now, room rates are dropping as bookings fail to match the optimistic predictions.

Some 1,100 Chinese families who'd hoped to offer rooms in their homes for rent to foreigners during the Olympics are finding few takers.

One head of household, Zhou Yong, blamed difficulties in getting tickets.

"Some of my Korean friends told me that they can hardly get Olympic tickets. They told me that if I can help buy the tickets, lots of people will come," Zhou said.

Beijing allotted only 25 percent of the 7.1 million Olympics events tickets to foreign buyers, half the percentage of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Without guaranteed tickets, some tourists are deciding to stay home.

"Everything becomes more expensive during the Olympic period," said Zhang Hui, the dean of the academy of tourism development at Beijing International Studies University. "If people aren't coming for the Olympics, why would they come during such an expensive period?"

Security is a growing concern. China has banned all large social gatherings, including fairs and conventions, during June, July and August and has ordered many street vendors out of the capital.

Passengers on Beijing's subway system soon must pass through metal detectors. Security agents will randomly frisk bus and subway passengers. Thousands of additional closed-circuit TV cameras have gone up around the city.

In their quest to control conduct, authorities have sought to choreograph even the way Chinese spectators cheer, promoting a four-part cheer in television advertisements and in schools.

It involves clapping twice, giving a thumbs-up sign, clapping twice more, then punching the air with both arms while chanting, "Let's go" and "China."

Earlier this month, China warned foreigners against engaging in "illegal gatherings, parades and protests" or bringing any material that's "harmful to China's politics, economics, culture and morals."

As of Wednesday, though, foreign tourists can tack on trips to Tibet if they please. China declared Tibet "safe" and reopened it to foreigners more than three months after bloody anti-China riots. The March riots were the worst ethnic troubles in nearly two decades in China. Adding to national woes, a devastating earthquake May 12 ripped Sichuan province, and the death toll is expected to climb past 80,000.

(McClatchy special correspondent Hua Li contributed to this report.)

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