Countdown to Beijing

For Hosts, Games Lose Some Luster

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

BEIJING -- It seemed like a great idea last year, starting a hotel-reservation Web site for this summer's Olympic Games. Companies had been calling travel agencies 17 months in advance to book rooms.

He Peiyuan, who used to work for just such an agency, calculated that he could make more than $140,000 with his site, Beijing Hotel Reservations. But so far, he said, all he's managed to earn from 448 customers is about $43,000.

"Chinese clients think the rooms are too expensive or the hotels aren't conveniently located, and they're afraid of being cheated. The foreign clients just hesitate to make a decision," said He, 24, who has started to work at an art gallery for extra income.

The Aug. 8-24 Summer Olympics are supposed to mark a major celebration for China, an extravaganza that has ordinary citizens bursting with pride and excitement. Locals here are, by and large, proud to play host. But many are also increasingly feeling burdened by or disconnected from a billion-dollar spectacle for which expectations have been set so high.

Tenants are upset that development has driven up the cost of living in the city; drivers are bracing for major traffic congestion; and hotel managers and travel agents are complaining that security restrictions have held up business and tourist visas, keeping occupancy rates unexpectedly low for the Olympic period.

"So many people expect the Olympics will help make China's economy even more prosperous. But in China, the government operates everything. As a result, the Olympics are not that efficient, economically speaking," said Zhang Ming, a professor of international relations at Renmin University.

In every Olympic host city, there is pre-Games grumbling. But this is a city that had arguably yearned for the Games more than most, making it all the more disappointing when the burdens of hosting the event start to outweigh the benefits.

For the Chinese, the Olympics have long been seen as an opportunity to strut and preen, a chance to demonstrate their country's ascendance in the world as an economic and political heavyweight. When Beijing won its bid in 2001, an estimated 200,000 overjoyed Chinese spontaneously converged on Tiananmen Square to celebrate what state media called "the triumph of the motherland."

Seven years later, the Beijing Games are likely to be the most expensive Olympics ever, given the amount of new infrastructure and corporate sponsorship that will benefit the city. But with just over a month to go, enthusiasm among many has given way to indifference and, in some cases, annoyance.

Authorities in Beijing, for instance, have said they will limit the number of trucks in the capital during the Games to improve security and curb traffic. The move means stores are likely to find themselves short of supplies.

"I just got the key of my new apartment last weekend. I need to buy tiles, paint, sinks, a toilet, kitchen appliances, a wood floor. But several construction stores told me they got government notices encouraging them to close during the Olympics," said Yin Jun, an editor in a publishing house.

The government, meanwhile, is also trying to tighten security by deploying automatic-weapon-toting guards to the airport and applying greater scrutiny to mail coming through the capital. From June through October, post offices here will not accept packages containing liquids, chemicals, powders, electronic equipment, or even soap and ointment, without special permission from the Public Security Ministry.

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