Olympic (Tourism) Hangover

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Our man in Beijing for the duration of the Games, Roy Graff, reports on…

7 years of preparation, 4 months of visa restrictions, 2 months of flowing traffic, 17 days of Olympic fever and now the hangover handover begins.

By now many gigabytes of text had been published online describing the Olympics in Beijing. It was interesting to read so much written about Beijing and China by first time visitors and journalists who are not China specialists but sports writers. Their observations may be superficial but they have no problem to write about what they observe and think and comparing their experience to past Olympic events.

I am writing only from my perspective and focusing on the tourism implications of the Games, both for inbound and oubound tourism. When a national government spends more than 40 billion dollars on a single event and mobilizes an entire country’s energies for the sake of 2 weeks of sports, it is bound to raise many questions on the effects this will have for the future. For example:

Are Chinese feeling more cosmopolitan now?
Have they more confidence to travel abroad knowing how well their country’s athletes performed on the international stage?
Did the Olympics stimulate more demand for sports themed tours and holidays both at home and abroad?
Does the rest of the world have a better understanding of China now and is more likely to visit?
Will the Olympic Village become the latest Disney theme park? Will someone have to pay back all the expense?

I wish to reflect on some of these issues while much more will be tackled during panel discussions at the WTM-ChinaContact forum on November 12 in London. Several experts including tourism officials, academics and private sector professionals with long experience in China will look at the events of the past year and their effects on tourism to and from China in the short and long term.

What did it feel like to see the city I first visited in 1996 host the greatest event on earth in 2008?

On my first visit to Beijing I remember it as very grey. People wore grey; the buildings were grey; their mood was pretty grey too. In restaurants there were stones in the rice, more oil than food in most dishes and no service to speak of. A Chinese woman who went out with a foreigner was thought of as a prostitute and police would bust into hotel rooms if they heard there was a mixed couple in there. Tourists could only buy things at the Friendship Store and the foreign exchange certificates had just been abolished.

Since that time I have come to regard Beijing as familiar ground and lived there in 2004. It still felt less modern and more ‘Chinese’ compared to Shanghai. Then came the winning bid to host the Olympics and the entire city’s energy was harnessed to prepare for the games. When I arrived in early 2008 after a 6 month absence there were entire city areas that I could not recognize. Over the last 3 months the experience of living in Beijing was drastically different. I cannot give an emphatic endorsement to all the changes but some things have improved for sure (whether all improvements will last is anyone’s guess).

What’s changed in the city because of the Olympics?

• There are many more shopping outlets and various restaurants. They are also more expensive.
• The transportation system has improved but still requires a lot more development.
• The modernity of the city threatens to turn it into another Shanghai or HKG and lose its authentic feel. This is especially noticeable around Houhai and the newly re-opened Qianmen.
• Fewer people re spitting or throwing littler in the streets.
• Taxi drivers have all been made to wear identical uniforms and neckties.
• The architecture is diverse and interesting. There is more use of colour everywhere.
• The city has been greened – trees and flowers everywhere. Not all of it will last past the Olympics since Beijing is a dry place and water is at a premium. Much of the greenery is potted flowers and plants hung up at weird unnatural angles and clearly will not survive for very long.
• There is a brand new park in the north, but it will not be accessible to ordinary folks until 2009.
• Chinese people are displaying great enthusiasm for the Games and sports in general.
• The air quality has improved eventually, and noticeably. It is pleasant to sit at an outdoor café which is a very new experience for me in Beijing. But how long will this last, once the Paralympics are over and industry tries to catch up with a backlog of orders to put the economy back on the same fast pace as 2007?

The international media seems to admire China’s logistical performance in staging the Games but to criticize some of the measures that were taken to ensure a smooth run. These measures include clearing the city of potential trouble makers (minorities mostly), taking half the cars off the road, not allowing any protests (3 parks were set aside for officially sanctioned protests but no permits were given out), going nuts with security measures like baggage x-ray machines at underground stations. Terrorism is a real threat these days and many of these precautions are sadly needed. London is even more of a target and will have to grapple with getting the balance right between security and warm welcome.

After the competitions we can look back at a successful and memorable Olympics for the sporting accomplishments and the management of the event. But what about the tourism benefits that the Olympics are supposed to bring to the host? Arguably China can most benefit from hosting the Games in the area of inbound tourism. In this aspect it seems a missed opportunity since the experience of visitors to the Olympics contained very little of China’s rich culture and tourism treasures. I am certain everyone who visited Beijing went to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, and maybe watched Chinese acrobatics show. But were they exposed enough to China’s vast wealth of tourist destinations to make them want to make a repeat visit? Did they get a feel of the fantastic food and hospitality China has to offer? Not really. The food inside the Olympic venues was truly awful – the worst representation of junk food pushed by the sponsors. No healthy food choices, nothing that any athletes will really want to eat. Overall this was a sanitized, efficient operation that lacked fun and pleasant surprise.

What we can say for certain is that people around the world watched the coverage of the Olympics on a massive scale, including great ratings for NBC’s Olympic broadcasts in the USA. They have seen a different side to China that could induce them to consider it as a destination in future if sufficient marketing efforts follow.

Let’s look more closely at the opportunities for tourism promotion China could have seized and what London could learn from that in 2012:

• Food: China’s 23 provinces each comes with its own culture and culinary tradition. Beijing normally provides for all of these traditions with outlets from high-end restaurants to open market stalls. During the Olympics, many food outlets owned and operated by minorities from Xinjiang and Tibet were closed down as their owners and staff were required to leave the city. Open air food streets were closed for hygiene reasons. Most spectators on package tours ate western food most of the time. The catering at Olympic venues was dismal – consisting of dry packed goods and soft drinks from the sponsor. Where hot food was available it again was provided by the sponsor – a certain junk food producing global company; and that sold out even before the events started.

• Travel: The heavy security measures at airports and transport terminals made touring around the country difficult and less pleasant. Visa application prior to the Olympics was made harder and put off prospective tourists not heading to the Olympics.

• Culture: China often makes a case for its diversity pointing to its many ethnic minority groups and their distinct culture and heritage. Aside from dressing children in colourful clothes during the opening ceremony, nothing was made of this and instead there was a focus on uniformity and unity. Needless to say that this was probably a decision made based on the dissent shown in Tibet earlier in the year but it was a shame for the world not to see the rich diversity of people in China.

Britain does not have the limitless resources of China or indeed the enthusiastic and unquestioning support of its population. But it has an interesting and diverse culture, which I hope will be showcased in a meaningful way. It also has a multi-ethnic population that can contribute to greater connection with the visitors from around the world if they are engaged and asked to participate.

A Chinese friend said to me it seemed strange to see an enthic Indian girl coming out to receive the football from the Chinese child during the handover ceremony, representing the UK. This shows the amount of work left to do to explain modern Britain to the rest of the world, and the Olympics present the perfect opportunity – let’s’ not waste it.

Roy Graff is Managing Director of ChinaContact (and a Director of China Business Services) and a fluent Chinese speaker who has lived in China and the UK working in tourism. He is the director of the WTM-ChinaContact forum at World Travel Market, 12 November 2008 in Excel, London and consults destination tourism boards, hotel groups and travel companies on access to the Chinese market. ChinaContact offer Western organizations tourism and hospitality representation services in China incorporating marketing, PR and sales and offer Chinese tourism destination assistance with international marketing.

Roy co-wrote and updated the China Outbound Travel Handbook, now available in a free downloadable PDF format from the ChinaContact Tourism Network.

For further information: www.chinacontact.co.uk

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