updated 4/8/2008 12:28:41 PM ET 2008-04-08T16:28:41

Chinese authorities have stopped issuing multiple-entry visas and slowed visa processing in Hong Kong, a major gateway for travel to the mainland, until after the Beijing Olympics, local travel agents said Tuesday.

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The Chinese foreign ministry, however, denied there was any change in policy.

The travel agents said the restrictions on the multiple-entry visas, which can be valid for up to three years, came after attacks on China's human rights record from abroad after its recent crackdown on anti-government riots in Tibet. Protesters have disrupted the Olympic torch relay in Paris and London in the past few days.

Chinese officials may have ordered the restrictions to keep tighter watch on tourists before the Olympics, some of the travel agents said. The agents said they received their information from Chinese visa officials in cities including Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

But in Beijing, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu denied there had been any change in policy.

"China's visa policy is formulated according to China's laws and regulations and in line with international practices," Jiang said at a regularly scheduled news conference. "I have checked this information and China did not stop granting multiple entry visas to foreign visitors."

Hong Kong-based travel agent Forever Bright Trading Ltd. said on its Web site that multiple-entry visas were suspended from March 28 until Oct. 17. The Beijing Olympics are scheduled to take place Aug. 8-24.

Travel agent Luk Tak said Chinese authorities are now only issuing single- or double-entry travel visas to foreigners in Hong Kong, scaling back a visa program that used to issue multiple-entry business visas that lasted up to three years.

Canadian Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong Executive Director Andrew Work said the visa restrictions were affecting members of the chamber who travel frequently to China on business.

"We've got a lot of members who travel on short notice. Somebody says, 'I need you to go close a deal here,'" Work said.

An official at another travel agency, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the best visa his agency can currently obtain is a double-entry visa valid for three months. He said China has also suspended one-day travel visas to the neighboring Chinese city of Shenzhen, a popular shopping destination.

Luk said fewer Chinese offices are handling visas. His agency used to submit applications to offices at the Chinese foreign ministry's Hong Kong office, Shenzhen and another neighboring Chinese city, Zhuhai. Now, only the Hong Kong office is handling applications.

As a result, visa processing times have slowed from same-day to next-day turnaround, Luk said.

The travel agency official who declined to be named said the visa restrictions may be due to the Olympics so Chinese authorities "have a better control over the people coming in."

Former British colony Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 but has retained separate political and economic systems. It allows visa-free access to citizens of major Western countries, so foreigners often use the city as a base to travel to mainland China.

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