Plenty of hotel rooms still available for Beijing Olympics

There are plenty of rooms available for the Beijing Olympics with domestic visitors being counted on to make up for an apparent absence of foreign guests.

Xiong Yuemi, deputy director of the Beijing Tourism Bureau, said Tuesday that 45.5 percent of Beijing's four-star hotel rooms had been booked for the Olympic period. Bookings in hotels with three-star ratings or below were also under 50 percent, though Xiong didn't offer specific numbers.

She declined to tie the vacant rooms to new visa controls and bad publicity surrounding the games, which open in 3 1/2 weeks. The games are supposed to showcase a new China, but they are also exposing facets of the authoritarian state that has run the country for almost six decades.

"This is within our expectations," Xiong said of the occupancy rate.

She said the rate at five-star hotels, many of which are booked by Olympic officials, sponsors or national delegations, was 78.1 percent. All occupancy rates were calculated at the end of June, Xiong said. She said the five-star rate for the same period a year ago was 69 percent.

About 500,000 foreigners are expected to attend the games.

"There are still many domestic ticket holders who haven't booked hotels yet." Xiong added. "When the games start, the actual occupancy rate will be higher than the current reservation rate."

The Aug. 8-24 Olympics have been beset by negative publicity for months, beginning in February when Steven Spielberg declined to work as artistic adviser for the opening ceremony, citing China's policies toward Sudan and Darfur.

This was followed in March by deadly rioting in Tibet, subsequent chaotic pro-Tibet rallies on international legs of the Olympic torch relay, and a deadly earthquake in Sichuan that killed just under 70,000. In addition, concerns about Beijing's chronic air pollution has prompted many athletes to train outside the country and enter just before their events begin.

Shaken by the rioting and protests, China has ratcheted up security for games. The communist government has reported breaking up plots to attack the games by Islamic radicals in the western province of Xinjiang. In a show of force, China's military has stationed a ground-to-air missile battery just 300 meters (yards) from one Beijing Olympic venue.

Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee, said security measures followed past Olympic practice. He said the same was true of new visa rules, which have particularly targeted students and made it difficult for some people with tickets to stay in the country.

"Chinese authorities have made some arrangements on issuing visas to foreigners, which is in accordance with the practice of past games and Chinese law," Sun said. "The aim of the visa policy is to guarantee the safety of participants in the Olympics. We'll take all necessary measures to host safe games."

Sun was echoing China Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to eventually succeed Hu Jintao as president.

"A safe Olympics is the biggest indicator of the success of the games," Xi said earlier this month in a speech at the Great Hall of the People, seat of China's legislature. "A safe Olympics is also a key indicator of the positive reflection of our nation's image."