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Beijing hotels hurting ahead of Summer Games

The Beijing Olympics are looking like a bust for the city's hotels. The 17-day games were supposed to generate a buzz throughout the summer, leading to a tourism windfall with fully booked hotels, flush customers and a jubilant atmosphere.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Beijing Olympics are looking like a bust for the city's hotels.

The 17-day games were supposed to generate a buzz throughout the summer, leading to a tourism windfall with fully booked hotels, flush customers and a jubilant atmosphere.

Instead Beijing's summer tourism season is slow, with hotels and travel agencies saying many potential travelers are being put off by tightening visa rules, polluted Beijing air and officials who seem more concerned with keeping out foreigners than welcoming them.

China has spent a reported $40 billion on new infrastructure and stunning venues, hoping to impress visitors with a modern city, attractive to foreign tourists. But this may not play out, which could shake an industry that has more than doubled its five- and four-star hotels offerings to 160 since Beijing was awarded the Olympics seven years ago.

“We are not full at the moment, and we have rooms to fill,” said Anthony Ha, general manager of the newly opened Marriott Courtyard Beijing Northeast. “There's not much time left, and we have a way to go.”

Ha declined to reveal the hotel's occupancy rate. But he expressed concern over a report last month from the Beijing Tourism Bureau that showed five-star hotels were 77 percent booked for the Aug. 8-24 Olympics, and four stars were at 44 percent.

“That's worrisome,” Ha said. “All of the hoteliers, anyway in Beijing, we're hoping to hit 90 percent daily. It's a huge thing.”

He said 90 percent would be normal for events like the Olympic Games.

“This is once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Ha said.

According to the Beijing Tourism Bureau, the number of foreign visitors to Beijing in May dropped by 12.5 percent from a year ago. Among the biggest drops were Japanese visitors, down 45 percent. American arrivals shrunk by 17.15 percent.

The earthquake on May 12 that killed almost 70,000 in Sichuan province may account for some of the decrease. So may a slumping world economy, and off-putting images of deadly rioting on March 14 in Tibet, followed by chaotic pro-Tibet protests on international legs of the torch relay.

But the tourist no-shows also coincide with new stringent visa regulations, making it tough for tourists and business executives to come in. Students have also been targeted, the government fearing they might side with political activists if protests erupt during the games.

Along with hotels, homeowners who hoped to land a windfall by leasing their homes or apartments are being disappointed. Song Zhi, manager of a Web site aimed at overseas Olympic tourists, said he had 200 units but only 20 were reserved. The average price is about 1,000 yuan ($145).

“We don't have what we've expected,” Song said. “There're not even many people making inquires about pricing. We had expected a peak in June, but that peak has yet to come.”

Guo Lingmei, general manager of marketing for BTG Travel in Beijing, said high hotel prices and difficulties obtaining tickets were discouraging tourists. Beijing organizers have said 6.8 million tickets were available for the games, but most were swooped up domestically.

Guo expects June, July and August to be slow.

"There won't be many tourists in these months,'' she said.

Some established five-star hotels are in good shape - at least during the Olympics - having secured reservations from Olympic sponsors or national Olympic committee delegations.

“We don't have any problems at all,” said Marco Sander, director of marketing and sales at the 526-room Kempinski Hotel. He said his high-powered guests were a sure bet.

“They need to come and they have no choice to turn back now,” Sander said. “They have put so much money down they cannot draw back.”

Sander said he was doubtful that Beijing would charm foreigners. Barcelona made its mark in 1992 with a stunning port and spirited nightlife, and Sydney did much the same in 2000. Sander's hotel, like many, has undergone renovation in the run-up to the games.

“We will see a big vacuum after the Olympic Games,” he said. “If Beijing is not able to transmit a very positive picture about the city and facilities — if we can't convince people to come to Beijing we have a big problem.”

China's authoritarian government seems most intent on keeping foreigners away. Visa rules were changed with little explanation, and repeated document sweeps of compounds where foreigners live seem designed to roust any potential troublemakers.

Last week Beijing said it had mobilized a 100,000-strong anti-terrorism force to guard against threats to the Olympics, headed by the elite Snow Wolf Commando Unit.

Ground-to-air missiles have been positioned under camouflage netting just 300 meters from one Olympic venue, a highly visible response to alleged plots by separatists from the Muslim-dominated region of Xinjiang. The government says plotters attempted to crash an airliner and planned to kidnap athletes and journalists.

There are also reports of bar areas in Beijing being forced to close early during the games, with a few around town dubbing these the “Killjoy Games” or “All-China Games.”

“Beijingers will enthusiastically welcome foreign tourists,” said Zhang Huiguang, director of the Beijing Tourism Bureau. “But for terrorists and troublemakers, we'll unite and fight against them.”

Zhang said the average price of a five-star hotel in Beijing ranged from 3,840 to 7,910 yuan ($560 to $1,150 ). Some rates are reported as high as $2,000 per night during the Olympics. The four-star average was 2,226 yuan ($325).

Several hotel managers said potential visitors may have been frightened by the soaring prices, pushed up artificially when Beijing Olympic organizers in 2005 and 2006 reserved 70 percent of the rooms at the city's four- and five-star hotels. Beijing organizers a few months ago released thousands of rooms, dropping their room holdings to 40 percent.

The practice is common in many large events, like the World Cup or Olympics, but it usually drives up prices.

Si Cunxia, sales manager of Travel China travel agency, said the Olympics have hurt Beijing's summer tourism.

“A lot of the hotels overestimated their occupancy rate for July and August,” she said. “The hotels were all too optimistic to think that they would be packed with tourists. In reality, tourists who would normally come to Beijing are not coming during the Olympics because transportation and accommodations are quite high.”