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China says Storm of Bad Publicity may Hurt Olympic Turnout

May 30, 2008

By Ben Blanchard
Reuters
May 28 2008

BEIJING, May 28 (Reuters) -- 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' Web site (www.beijing2008.cn).

"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 percent 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 ($320.3) -- 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.
($1=6.949 Yuan) (Editing by Ken Wills and Valerie Lee;
ben.blanchard@thomsonreuters.com; +86 10 6627 1201; Reuters
Messaging: ben.blanchard.reuters.com@reuters.net)
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