Reflections from China: Where did all the tourists go?

'Reflections from China' series

Michelle in ChinaReporter Michelle Baran recently returned from a trip to China to discover how the country was faring with the Summer Olympics approaching. The first of her five reports follows.

The Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics may be around the corner, but it was downright lonely on a trip to China earlier this month.

I was virtually on my own to tackle the Great Wall at Badaling. At the Forbidden City in Beijing, there was plenty of room to roam on one’s own, to visit entire portions of the vast royal complex with barely another soul in sight.

So where did all the tourists go, only weeks before the largest international event China will ever have hosted?

While much has been made lately about the tighter visa requirements imposed by the Chinese government on travelers to the country in the lead-up to the Games, the visa issue is only one in a complex series of events that has created a jarring calm in a country known for its crowds.

chinadispatch_greatwallSome slowing in tourism in the few months leading up to the Games (being held in Beijing from Aug. 8 to 24) had been anticipated by the travel industry. But in addition to that, not every country hosting the Olympics has a controversial diplomatic event take place just months before the Games, such as the conflict in Tibet that marred the Olympic torch relay. And no host nation has ever had a pre-Games tragedy like the massive May earthquake in China that killed upwards of 69,000 people.

And yes, China has cracked down on visas. I know from experience that it’s tricky to get into the country right now. (I made three trips to the Chinese embassy in New York before my trip.)

With the closing of Tibet to foreign tourists and repeated aftershocks still being felt in the Sichuan province, I questioned who would want to venture to the Far East right now. And with the slowdown of tourism after the quake and in the lead-up to the Games, why would the government tighten visa restrictions on top of everything else?

With an event of this magnitude of the horizon, the Chinese government obviously doesn’t want to take any risks. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them.

“Big events are dangerous no matter what you do,” said Eric Demaret, general manager of hotel sourcing in Asia for Gullivers Travel Associates, which owns Travel Bound and hosted me in Beijing and Shanghai. Demaret is based in Beijing, where the recent impact on tourism can be felt everywhere you turn. “When you organize big events, you have exceptional measures.”

While those exceptional measures may be a turnoff for many, much of the world will breathe a sigh of relief if there are no terrorist acts during the Games this summer.

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