updated 1/8/2009 9:26:20 AM ET 2009-01-08T14:26:20

The number of travelers to China dropped by 2 million in 2008 in what was supposed to be a banner year for tourism but became one dampened by Olympics-related security measures and the global economic crunch.

It was the first decline in visitor numbers since 2003, when a deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, kept many people away.

The number of inbound travelers fell to 130 million last year, China’s National Tourism Administration said on its Web site.

“All major inbound source markets, except for Hong Kong and Russia, slumped last year amid the economic downturn,” the administration’s director, Shao Qiwei, was quoted as saying by the official China Daily newspaper Thursday.

Neither statement mentioned other factors affecting travel to China, though industry experts also blamed tightened visa restrictions before the Beijing Olympics and a May earthquake in southwest China that left 90,000 dead or missing.

Authorities feared protests around the Olympics would mar the flawless image of China that the government wanted to promote and made visa procedures more strict in an effort to weed out potential troublemakers such as foreign activists. That also kept out many would-be visitors.

“The high cost of hotel and air tickets may also have had an effect, but taking into consideration the spending power of foreigners compared to Chinese, they wouldn’t just drop their plans because of higher prices,” said Li Lei, chief editor of Chinese travel industry Web site Tourismvane.com.

The Chinese government built the world’s largest airport terminal in eager anticipation of Olympics visitors. Hotels underwent costly renovations and even restaurant menus were standardized across Beijing.

But only 389,000 foreign tourists visited Beijing in August, the month of the games, including travelers from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, according to the Beijing tourism bureau. That was far fewer than the 500,000 guests originally expected.

The overall number of visitors to China dropped to 130 million in 2008, from 132 million in 2007, according to the tourism administration’s numbers. The decrease was 2.6 percent.

The decline in foreign visitors continues because of the worldwide financial situation, Li said.

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“Last year was really terrible,” Li said. “For now, the situation is getting worse and worse, and people in the industry don’t expect any improvement until the second quarter this year.”

China received more than 22 million foreign visitors last year through November, according to the latest statistics from the National Tourism Administration. The rest came from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The administration did not break down the numbers into tourist and business visits for non-foreign travelers. Many businessmen with ties to China live outside the mainland and come regularly for work.

But business has slowed across China, with economic growth expected to fall to about 9 percent this year, down from 11.9 percent in 2007.

Zhang Ze, vice manager of the hotel section at Chinese travel Web site Qunar.com, pointed to occupancy rates in some luxury hotels which were at 40 percent last month, 10 or 20 percent lower than in previous years.

“The tourism industry is quite sensitive to changes in the economic climate,” he said.

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