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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

China's Visa Policy Threatens Olympics Tourism

June 25, 2008

By David Barboza
The New York Times
June 24, 2008

BEIJING -- The plush lobby of Beijing's Kerry Center Hotel is usually
crowded with foreign guests, many of them listening to jazz and
sipping martinis in Centro, the hotel's fashionable bar, or lining up
for taxis after dinner at the Horizon restaurant.

But Thursday evening, Centro had only a sprinkling of guests in a
hotel whose occupancy rate is typically close to 100 percent this
time of year. That night, the duty manager, said it was 63 percent.

"Something strange has been going on," said Sun Yin, the duty
manager. "I really don't know what happened."

With the Beijing Olympics less than two months away, hotel operators,
travel agencies, and foreign businessmen say new Chinese visa
restrictions are proving bad for business, casting a pall over
Beijing during what was supposed to be a busy and jubilant tourist
season leading up to the Olympic Games.

Chinese authorities acknowledged putting new visa restrictions in
place in May -- after foreign embassies reported fewer visas being
granted and tighter, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, restrictions. The
government did not release guidelines detailing the changes in
policy; it often does not. But a foreign ministry spokesman, Qin
Gang, said in May that they would be temporary.

On Monday, Hu Bin, a visa official at the foreign ministry, said the
ministry had no statistics on the number of visa denials, but that
the new policies were put in place for "security considerations."

Travel business analysts had forecast that the Games would bring
500,000 foreign visitors and an extra $4.5 billion in revenue to
Beijing this summer. But now, even though some five-star hotels are
fully booked for the Olympics, many economists are beginning to doubt
the city will get the kind of economic windfall it was hoping for.

Many hotels in Beijing are struggling to find guests; some large
travel agencies have temporarily closed branches; and people
scheduled to travel here for seminars and conferences are canceling.
The number of foreign tourists visiting Beijing fell sharply in May,
dropping by 14 percent, according to the city's statistics bureau.

Beijing residents, meanwhile, are complaining that heightened
security measures could spoil what was supposed to be Beijing's long
anticipated coming-out party. Despite years of careful preparation --
including teaching taxi drivers English and instructing locals in how
to wait in a line (not common here), and spending billions on mammoth
building projects for these Games -- Beijing is starting to appear
less welcoming to foreigners.

"Business is so bleak,' said Di Jian, the sales manager at the
Capital Hotel in Beijing. "Since May, very few foreigners have
checked in. Our occupancy rate has dropped by 40 percent."

Many other cities in China are also feeling the pain of fewer
tourists, including Shanghai, where some hotels say occupancy rates
are down 15 to 20 percent.

The government has publicized its determination to combat possible
threats to the Games, including suicide bombings, bus hijackings and
chemical attacks. In April, Interpol warned that a terrorist attack
during the Beijing Olympics is a "real possibility." And in a year
plagued by riots in Tibet, protests of the Olympic torch relay, a
terrorist plot to kidnap journalists covering the Olympics (according
to Beijing officials) and the Sichuan earthquake, the government is
stressing public safety above all else.

But Beijing appears to be less concerned about hosting a global party
and more concerned with making sure no one spoils it. Officials
announced Thursday that 100,000 commandos, police and army troops
would be placed on high alert during the Games.

The heightened sense of alert over security threats in the capital
has done something else too: it has spawned a huge number of rumors
about other actions the government may or may not be taking.

Among them: a border region with North Korea has been closed to
prevent security risks; foreign students and migrant workers are
being asked to leave Beijing during the Olympics; all volunteers need
to register with the police; bars will be forced to close early; and
all outdoor parties planned for the three-week-long Olympic
celebration have been banned, putting the hex on some of the
entertaining events that had been planned for the Games.

The Beijing police and security officials denied some of the reports,
but also, at times, insisted in telephone interviews last week that
they could not disclose some security matters. Poor official
communication about regulations and restrictions in Beijing may be
contributing to public uncertainty and feeding the rumor mill.

Nothing is more of an obstacle than the new visa policy. Businessmen,
particularly from the United States, Hong Kong and Taiwan, have
complained that new visa restrictions have prevented business
meetings from taking place and crimped deal making.

Many Hong Kong-based businessmen, for example, say new visa rules
require frequent and complicated applications, often including proof
of a hotel booking, round-trip airline tickets, and in some cases, a
letter of invitation.

"It's kind of draconian," said Richard Vuylsteke, president of the
American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which represents American
companies doing business in the region. "But politics and security
trump economics, especially during the Olympics. We just hope that
after the Olympics things will change."

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in Beijing has also complained
to China's foreign ministry.

Chinese hotel operators are also frustrated. A hotel construction
boom in which the number of four- and five-star hotels in Beijing
jumped from about 64 in 2001 to 161 as of the end of April, according
to government figures, is beginning to look overly optimistic. Many
hotels are still under construction in a city that now has over 5,000 hotels.

Hotel operators also say the earthquake and Olympic torch relay
protests may be having an impact on tourism. "Usually May and June
are the busy season for our hotel," said Jiang Zhiqiang, a spokesman
for the New Otani Changfugong Hotel in Beijing. "This year is quite
unusual. I think several natural and man-made disasters happened
subsequently, which hurt our business."

With the opening ceremony of the Olympics just seven weeks away, only
44 percent of the rooms in four star hotels and 77 percent of
five-star hotel rooms are booked, according to the Beijing Tourist Bureau.

If visitors cannot get visas to enter the country, many of those
hotels may be forced to slash rates, which had jumped as high as
$2,000 a night when prospects were brighter.

In some ways, the hotels are also on the front lines of the security
crackdown. They typically share lists of their guests with the
government, on a daily basis. But now they are being asked to supply
photographs of all their employees too, as well as help the
government in visa approvals, some hotel managers said.

Many large tourism agencies have already given up. "Now most of my
colleagues for inbound tourism don't come to work," said Wang Ge,
director of the inbound tourism department at the Beijing Tourism
Group. "We have no clients this month."

Indeed, when an American called the China Travel Guide Tourist Agency
last week, a sales clerk even discouraged the person from visiting
Beijing during the Olympics.

"You really don't want to go there," said Lorna Liu, the sales
representative at China Travel Guide. "Why don't you try Xi'an or
Shanghai and visit Beijing a little later?"
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