Beijing to feel the strain from Olympic visitors

BEIJING (Reuters) - There is little doubt at ordinary Beijingers’ enthusiasm for next month’s Olympic Games.

A view of the Seventeen-Arch Bridge and part of the Beijing skyline are seen from the Summer Palace in Beijing in this July 15, 2008 photo. There is little doubt at ordinary Beijingers' ethusiasm for next month's Olympic Games. But a whole series of problems that have proven tough to fix could give visitors an Olympic-sized headache, and may put many off coming altogether. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside/Files

But a whole series of problems that have proven tough to fix could give visitors an Olympic-sized headache, and may put many off coming altogether.

From rioting passengers angry at delayed flights to poor foreign language skills, Beijing’s tourism infrastructure faces a huge challenge dealing with their guests -- the ones who have obtained hard-to-get visas, that is.

“The hardware will be there but the software will be lacking,” said Paul French, chief China analyst at research firm Access Asia.

Beijing has always known it would have a big challenge on its hands, and started its preparations early, erecting more English signs, correcting the plethora of ‘Chinglish’ that dots the city, building new roads and expanding the subway network.

But a lot of the preparations are aimed at tour groups, which is traditionally how Chinese go on holiday, rather than individual tourists, the common preference of many foreign, especially Western, travelers.

“From the current statistics, there are less tour groups and rather more individual travelers,” admitted Xiong Yumei, deputy director of the Beijing Tourism Administration. “That creates even higher demands on language and reception work.”

A much vaunted scheme to provide bilingual English-Chinese menus during the Games is only going to be available in certain hotels, 1,000 or so restaurants and at some tourist hot spots, Xiong said, so many eateries could effectively be off limits.

Of course, all these problems become moot if the tourists don’t show up in the numbers expected.

Officials have already admitted that the swirl of negative publicity that has accompanied the run-up to the Olympics due to pollution, human rights, unrest in Tibet, visa controls and other issues, may put a lot of people off coming.

“I think China has a dreadful image at the moment. People are just thinking is this really going to be a pleasant trip?” Access Asia’s French said.

“And I think they’re putting together pollution with problems with visas with just the whole strangeness of going there and the fact it doesn’t look very prepared,” he added.


Two issues have particularly concerned observers -- lack of English, and the hassle of dealing with Beijing’s often confusing and sometimes chaotic transport system.

“Moving about and getting especially to the more distant venues is going to be a challenge. There will be language barriers,” said Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET Intelligent Risks Systems, a travel and asset risk management firm.

The extensive bus network is hard to use without at least a basic understanding of Chinese, and buses crawl along at peak times. The subway, though having been expanded, does not cover many parts of the city and heaves with people at rush hour.

But Shu-Cherng Fang, a professor at the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University, thinks crowding and traffic jams will not be the main problem, as many Beijingers will simply be told to stay at home over the Games.

“The traffic is controllable. The real issue is the service concept,” he said.

“You may have to take a taxi to the subway, and then take a bus to get there. The service integration is one of the things Beijing has never had before. This is going to be an issue,” added Fang, who is advising the Olympics organizers.

Beijing expects to host between 450,000 and 500,000 overseas visitors during the Olympics, only marginally up from the 420,000 who came in the same period last year, officials say, though steamy August is normally a low tourist season.


Despite the opening of a huge new, Norman Foster designed airport terminal, the civil aviation regulator is worried that service standards will let down the city just at the point when most people will have their first contact with Beijing.

It issued a lengthy statement on its website ( earlier this year warning airlines the government would not tolerate “mass incidents” at airports -- official-speak for protests.

“They whole industry must put an end to large incidents which have an effect on society caused by service problems; avoid incidents where passengers maliciously occupy or seize aircraft,” it said.

During last year’s Spring Festival, riot police had to be called to Beijing airport after passengers angry at fog-related delays roughed up airline staff, attacked service counters and tried to storm grounded aircraft.

Similar cases are regularly reported across the country in Chinese media.

Yet one factor is out of the regulator’s control: the weather. Air traffic controllers routinely ground all flights during thunderstorms, and the summer is Beijing’s thunderstorm season.

“Of course the Olympics is a big test for us,” then head of the watchdog, Yang Yuanyuan, told Reuters late last year.

“We’ve said it would be better not to open it on August 8. September 8 or October 8 would be better. August 8 is smack in the middle of the July-August thunderstorm season,” Yang said.

The 8th day of the 8th month was chosen as the opening date, ironically, as the number 8 in Chinese is a symbol of good luck and wealth.

Editing by Jeremy Laurence