China expects post-Olympics tourist boom

Photo: Stoney Steencamp

Thirty years ago, it was well-nigh impossible to gain entry to an average Chinese person’s home; today, the Beijing Travel Administration has designated some 600 households as official Olympic Home-stay Families.
While a total capacity of some 1,000 visitors during the two week Olympic period last month may not have been a lot, the policy certainly says everything about just how far China wants to engage with the rest of the world. It’s a coming out party the likes of which the world has rarely seen before.
Three decades ago, foreign visitors were a rare sight in China’s communist streets; last month, cosmopolitan Beijing was aiming to welcome an half a million foreign visitors – a number described by some as the biggest single influx of foreigners into China since the Mongolian invasion of the 13th Century.
Indeed, the old suspicions are barely apparent, say visitors, and while the Chinese language can be a barrier, getting around the country is only getting easier.
A large part of this attitudinal change is a result of becoming a host country for the Olympics, but a lot also has to do with the pivotal place that China occupies in the world economy. By 2020, for example, the country will be the top inbound tourist destination, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. It is currently the world’s fourth most popular destination for tourists, after France, Spain and the USA – and the Games are expected to play a big part in propelling the country upwards in that ranking. “Tourism will really benefit from the Olympic Games; it is one of the biggest beneficiaries,” UNWTO assistant secretary-general Geoffrey Lipman told media.
And China has lost no time in making the best use of that opportunity. The massive party that is the Olympics is a chance like no other for a billion dollar makeover of the host city, whose effects will hopefully last long after the hangover has disappeared. London, for instance, hopes the 2012 games will help revitalise its East End, bringing much needed development and business to the area.
And so too with Beijing. The city’s tourism industry has ramped up both hardware and software: Beijing now boasts 130,000 hotel rooms in 815 star rated properties. Over 50 new tourist information booths dot the city and a tourist helpline and website have both been launched. Special itineraries were created for athletes and officials, and could be booked from within the Olympic Village. New tourism itineraries for this year go beyond the historic and cultural heritage focus to package some of the Chinese capital’s exotic flavour. Bars, art and architecture all find a place.
Related host cities around Beijing have also benefited: Qingdao, Qinhuangdao and Tianjin have all been tarted up with spanking new developments. The Shandong Province, which hosted the sailing competitions in the city of Qingdao, for example, has a new sailing centre that will continue to attract tourists long after any records set at the Games have been broken.
Co-host city Tianjin invested  much in upgrades and renovations, and a new intercity train between Beijing and Tianjin cuts travel time to less than half an hour, effectively making the city a half-day trip from the capital. As of May, the city received tourists of about 50 million person-times, 40 per cent up over the previous year.
China itself recorded nearly 55 million visitor arrivals in the first five months of the year, eight per cent more than in the same period last year, the numbers are evidence of both, an increased international interest in the country, and a closer business relationship with the world. Nearly 11 million of these were from overseas; the rest coming from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao.
And in terms of tourism receipts, a total of $17.15 billion was taken in from January to May, up 4.86 per cent year on year, with the most tourists going to Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzen, the Hong Kong border city.
Amid all the hype, though, comes a note of caution: hotels in Beijing have been cutting their room rates by up to 30 per cent because expected high demand for the Games has not materialised, according to a wire report. And a China Daily newspaper report said average four star room rates in August were down to about $117 per night, from $219 in May and June, while three star rates dropped to $58 from $102.
Eric Wong, co-head of Asian Real Estate Research with investment bank UBS in Hong Kong, was quoted by AP as saying the drop in rates resulted from a combination of over-ambitious pricing and the new security measures, which took many hotels by surprise. Hotels also slashed their prices right before the start of previous Olympics Games elsewhere, he said.
“We all hear how stringent searches and visa requirements and rejections based on the slightest whim of political activism is diminishing the desire to visit China,” Wong said. “Beyond the Olympics, things should turn normal.” The number of foreign tourists visiting Beijing fell nearly 20 percent in June from a year earlier, suggesting that Olympics-related visa restrictions and other problems were keeping a significant number of people away.
Si Cunxia from Travel China travel agency said hotels were scaling back projections because they had overestimated occupancy rates for July and August. “Tourists who would normally come to Beijing are not coming during the Olympics because transportation and accommodation costs are high,” Cunxia told AP. “The average price for a five-star hotel in Beijing ranges from $500 to $1,150 and going up as high as $2,000 during the Olympics. “Large events like the Olympics usually drive up prices.”
But any drop in room rates and tourism is being dismissed by Chinese officials. Wang Zhifa, deputy head of China's National Tourism Administration, told a news conference that the body surveyed cities that have hosted previous Olympics. “Generally speaking regular visitors will avoid the peak period during the Olympic Games. Only athletes, coaches and fans will visit then,” he told a news conference. “According to previous experiences, the peak period for tourism in host cities is once the Olympics have ended.”
Indeed, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), the number of tourists coming to China will increase at an annual rate of five percent in the next three years, its chairman Brian Deeson was quoted as saying. By 2009, the number may be as high as 146 million person-times, with the help of an essential push delivered by the Games. The country’s tourism receipts are expected to reach $85 billion by 2011.
By Clark Kelly