Page last updated at 23:18 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 00:18 UK

Tourism slow as Olympics approach

Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Workers complete Olympics facilities in Beijing
Work is under way to get the city ready for the Olympics

Beijing's forthcoming Olympic Games does not appear to be drawing as many people to the capital as expected this year.

Figures show the number of international tourists visiting the Chinese capital fell by more than 14% in May compared to the year before.

Officials had hoped the Olympics would help attract increasing numbers of foreign tourists to Beijing throughout the year and beyond.

But tougher visa requirements, and concerns that officials are more worried about security than organising a party, appears to have dampened demand.

Figures from the Beijing Tourism Bureau show there were far fewer visitors from Japan, South Korea and the United States - three big markets - in May.

China World Hotel, Beijing
Hotels, such as China World, say bookings are down

A number of new hotels have been built for an Olympic opening, others have been refurbished, but many say business is slow.

"Our business in June and for July is not as good as last year. There are now fewer foreign tourists," said a spokeswoman from Beijing's Swiss Hotel.

Tourism chiefs blame the negative publicity caused by the snow storms in southern China earlier this year and the Sichuan earthquake.

Visa problems

But others point to China's tougher visa requirements, which have made it more difficult for tourists to visit the country.

And it is not only tourists that have been affected - foreign businesses operating in China and individuals living here have also complained.

Businessmen say it has become harder to travel into China, and many long-term foreign residents in Beijing have had difficulties renewing their visas.

Some visa applicants now have to provide hotel vouchers, onward or return tickets and an invitation letter before being allowed into the country.

Dos and don'ts

And those who make it to Beijing for the games face a number of restrictions that could dampen the party spirit.

A few weeks ago, China issued a "legal guide" for foreigners arriving in China for the Olympics that contained a list of dos and don'ts.

Foreigners will not be allowed to sleep outside, and will have to register with the police within 24 hours if they stay with a Beijing resident.

They are banned from displaying insulting slogans or banners at sports venues or those relating to politics, religion or race.

Following unrest in Tibet earlier this year, officials seem worried about the possibility of anti-government demonstrations.

And in a city where pubs and clubs regularly stay open beyond dawn, the guide states that these must close by 2am.

No desire for party

China is more interested in staging a smoothly run games, without any hiccups, than in hosting a party, according to Professor Joseph Cheng.

"The Chinese authorities are more interested in the demonstration effect of the Olympics," explained Mr Cheng, of Hong Kong's City University.

Chinese boy at Olympic torch relay
Following earlier protests, officials are concerned about security

"They see the Olympics as a grand event that will show the growth and modernisation of China, and raise its international status."

China does not see it quite like this, saying thousands of performers will take part in a festival of culture this summer.

"We believe it will be the richest and most diverse in Olympic history," said Olympic official Zhao Dongming, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

China at its best?

But there is no doubt that the Chinese authorities are leaving nothing to chance in a bid to show Beijing at its best for the games.

Taxi drivers are being exhorted to keep their vehicles clean and tidy - one complained he was fined for having just one hair on a seat.

And there is a public sanitation campaign to stamp out the "four harms" of rats, flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches.

An anti-terrorist force of 100,000 commandoes, soldiers and police officers will be on duty in the weeks running up to, and during, the Olympics.

The increased security presence is clearly visible on Beijing's streets, particularly around foreign embassies and sports venues.

This could put off revellers, but China might think that is a small price to pay if nothing unexpected happens in August.

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