In the US, I would nominate ”subprime.” In China, my suggestion is “visa policy.”
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.”
Travel business analysts had forecast that the Games would bring 500,000 foreign visitors and an extra $4.5 billion in revenue to Beijing this summer. But now, even though some five-star hotels are fully booked for the Olympics, many economists are beginning to doubt the city will get the kind of economic windfall it was hoping for.
Many hotels in Beijing are struggling to find guests; some large travel agencies have temporarily closed branches; and people scheduled to travel here for seminars and conferences are canceling. The number of foreign tourists visiting Beijing fell sharply in May, dropping by 14 percent, according to the city’s statistics bureau.
Beijing residents, meanwhile, are complaining that heightened security measures could spoil what was supposed to be Beijing’s long anticipated coming-out party. Despite years of careful preparation — including teaching taxi drivers English and instructing locals in how to wait in a line (not common here), and spending billions on mammoth building projects for these Games — Beijing is starting to appear less welcoming to foreigners.
“Business is so bleak,” said Di Jian, the sales manager at the Capital Hotel in Beijing. “Since May, very few foreigners have checked in. Our occupancy rate has dropped by 40 percent.”
I have been apartment hunting (finally found a new place) and there is now a sizable glut of places. Those landlords who’ve held up thinking that August would make them gazillionaires are in for a rude shock, largely thanks to their government’s ham-fisted policies. Prices are higher, for sure, but not outrageous, and as August 8 approaches they will have to drop further. I keep hearing how people are staying away largely due to the misery and complications of getting a visa. Foreigners I know who live here as freelancers are getting very creative (I won’t give away any secrets).
This seems to be the cocktail party topic of choice throughout Beijing, mainly because it’s simply bewildering. You can’t open the door and slam it shut at the same time. Yeah, you need to be careful and keep security top of mind. Getting through security at a US airport now is a descent into hell, but at least you know you’ll eventually get through in a fairly reasonable amount of time, ridiculous as the bureaucracy is. With getting a visa, the outcome is far less certain, and a high level of anxiety is practically guaranteed because there are so many unknowns and gray areas.
Most bewildering is that the self-inflicted visa mess flies in the face of all of China’s goals: to open up the country to the world; to show that they have emerged from a prickly authoritarian state defined by its mindless bureaucracy to a modern superpower defined by its adorable fuwas and slick skyscrapers; to give tourism the greatest boost ever and encourage the masses around the world to head over. So once again, the country I love mystifies me with its irrational, self-defeating, hopelessly confused rules.
And to add the balance we all crave, the US mystifies me as well, and every time I see airport security grab one of those lethal tubes of toothpaste and chuck it into the tall clear plastic bin I wonder just how nutty governments can be. At least with the US, I kind of see why they go through the ridiculous procedures. In the case of the visa policy, I see neither rhyme nor reason, only a murky, unthought-through self-imposed mess.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.