Tourists Face Difficulty Getting Visas for China Travel

The Beijing Summer Olympics was supposed to be a big international party, but the Chinese government has tightened visa requirements in recent months, making it harder for foreigners to come to the country.

That may be one reason why tourism is down in Beijing and why some hotels are slashing their rates.

At the Chinese consulate in Washington, D.C., summer is normally a pretty high season for tourist visas. This summer, however, traffic is lighter.

Fewer people may be applying for visas because it is more of a hassle to get one.

Pat White and her family, who live in Dallas, began planning their 3 1/2-week luxury tour of China last year. But a few months ago, consulates began demanding proof of round-trip air tickets and confirmations from the hotels where they were planning to stay. A simple itinerary wasn't enough.

"They said no, it had to be confirmation from hotels in China that we had reservations and we had paid" for them, White says.

'Treated Like A Child'

When it came to White's 27-year-old daughter, Sarah, Chinese government representatives wanted even more.

"They wanted a bank statement that had somewhere over $3,500 in the account," Sarah White says. "They also requested a letter from my employer here in the United States that I would be taking a leave of absence from my job and returning on a certain day."

Though she got the visa and had a wonderful trip, the application process left her feeling treated like a child.

"It seemed ridiculous to me that they needed a financial letter and a letter from my boss," Sarah says. "It felt like I was going on a kindergarten field trip."

A Headache At The Consulate

"It was insane," says Janie Worster of Bamboo Tours, a small travel agency in San Francisco. Worster, who handled the White family's trip, says the new visa rules wrought havoc at the local consulate.

"It just became such a horrible situation," Worster says. "You would see people just yelling at the visa officers and people frustrated beyond belief."

Worster even suggested that some travelers postpone their trips.

"I just started warning people, honestly, to not go unless they really wanted to deal with a headache at the consulate," she says.

The Olympics were supposed to be a bonanza for Beijing, but tourism is actually down, as some people may have heeded that advice.

A Slump In Tourism

Chinese officials say the number of visitors in June fell by nearly 20 percent from the same time last year, though most five-star hotels are still booked for the games.

Some of the city's more modest hotels, though, are cutting their rates by up to 30 percent.

The tourism slump has also affected some tour guides.

"Our guide in Beijing said she had only had three bookings for the month of June, which is just barely enough to get by," says Eli Haizlip, owner of Bamboo Tours. "Bus drivers said they weren't busy. The day they were leaving, they did not have an assignment for the next few days — and that's very strange."

Haizlip says tourism workers blamed the government's new visa restrictions. But there are certainly other factors, including the weak U.S. economy and concern over finding hotel rooms and tickets to the games.

Haizlip also thinks some people are staying away because of recent, bad news, like the May earthquake in Sichuan Province.

"Those huge numbers of collapsing buildings — that's a major turnoff for tourists," Haizlip says.

The Chinese government says it tightened the visa policy for what it calls security reasons. The changes came earlier this year after the violent uprising in Tibet and protests against the Olympic torch relay.

Most observers think the visa change is designed to keep out foreign protesters and opponents of the regime.

David Zweig, a professor at the University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong, says the Chinese Government is nervous.

"On the one hand, there is a sense of pride in how successful China has been. But at the same time, there is an insecurity that there are a lot of problems and the West will highlight those problems — and those problems will be what people remember rather than the success," Zweig says.

While the new visa policy may seem odd to outsiders, it's not unusual in China. The government has tried to keep people away from big events before, as it did in 1999 when the regime staged a huge parade on Beijing's main boulevard to celebrate a half-century of communism. Instead of inviting the public to participate, people living on the parade route were under virtual house arrest and had to watch the festivities on television.

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