June 24, 2008

"Security considerations" keep away Olympic crowds

China is getting a little bit of security-itis. They must have caught it from Dick Cheney's America.

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.

Tiananmen Square in Beijing is a landmark for tourists. But the city has yet to experience an expected boom in foreign visitors.

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.”

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