Game On!

Beijing prepares for its Olympic moment

By: Jim Calio

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The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics will be the biggest event on the travel calendar next year. There is no way to avoid it if you are a tour operator, travel agent, airline or hotel chain. And the fact that the build-up for this historic event has already reached a kind of mini-crescendo many Beijing hotels are already booked, tickets to the Olympic events can be hard to get and some tour operators are turning away clients is evidence of just how big it will be.

It is, as everyone is fond of saying, China’s “coming out” party, and a celebration that has long-range ramifications for that country’s politics, international standing and, yes, its mega-celebrity as a destination of choice from now on. And the Chinese government has spared no expense, plowing an estimated $67 billion into the construction of 37 Olympic venues, the sprucing up of the city as a whole and, hopefully, solving Beijing’s persistent air pollution problem, which could hinder the competition.

But for the client who is only now deciding to go to the Games, there are some daunting obstacles. Most five-star and even some four-star hotels in Beijing are already fully booked for the Olympics Aug. 8-24, either because they offered their rooms earlier or were block-booked by tour operators or are reserved for local Olympics personnel. Even some properties still under construction, like the InterContinental Beijing North, for example, are already sold out.

Many airlines will start selling seats to Beijing around the Olympics within the next couple of months, and industry experts expect them to be snapped up quickly. Airspace in China is closely controlled, and American carriers will receive only six new routes into the country in the next three years, and only one in 2008, which means that clients will have to find other carriers.

“A lot of people who haven’t planned ahead and are going to China next summer think, ‘Well, while I’m in China, why don’t I just hop over to see the Olympics,’” said Dianna Upton, operations manager for Cox & Kings. “But then they find out how difficult it is.”


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The National Aquatics Center, or the
“Water Cube,” is already a much talked
about Olympic arena.
In total there will be an estimated 571,000 beds (296,000 rooms) available in Beijing for the Olympics. But the problem, according to Upton and other tour operators, is that most of the major hotels are imposing 18-night minimum stays, which is the length of the Olympics.

“All the major hotels are doing it,” she said, “and it puts a damper on things, at least from the tour operators’ end. Most people don’t want to go for the whole thing.”

Also, rooms that are available will be going for a premium.

“What is currently a $200 room in U.S. currency,” said Barbara Leung-Maradik, area director of sales and marketing for the InterContinental Beijing Financial Street, “will go for between $700 and $1,000 for the Olympics in a five-star hotel, or about three and a half times what it costs now. It depends on location and accessibility to the Olympic venues for example, if you’re near a subway station.”

In all, InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) will have 12 hotels and more than 4,400 rooms across four brands in Beijing, including InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express. Marriott, Four Seasons, Hyatt and Hilton will also be opening new properties in time for the Olympics, as will the Mandarin Oriental with a new 241-room property boasting a 21-story atrium.


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Known as the “Birds Nest,” the National
Stadium will be the main venue of the Beijing
Games, and is just one example of the
investment China has made in these Olympics.
“The scale of [these Olympics] is different than anything I’ve seen before,” said Peter Wynn, general manager of Raffles Beijing. “This is certainly going to be the Olympics of the 21st century. And at our echelon, it’s very hard to find a room even one year out, let alone tickets.”

One solution: Buy a complete travel package through a tour operator that specializes in sports, like CoSport, which is the official Beijing Olympics ticket seller for the U.S., Australia and several other countries. CoSport’s packages range from $4,170 to $19,162, depending on which “cycle” the “middle” cycle, or the time between the opening and closing ceremonies, is the cheapest and on add-ons like meals and the length of stay.

A three-night package, for example, that includes tickets to the men’s and women’s swimming semifinals and finals and men’s diving finals is $4,522 per person for a double-occupancy room. CoSport said there are some opening ceremony tickets left, but they are going fast.

“We work with a tour operator,” said Bob Lohrman, managing director of two as-yet-unopened properties JW Marriott Hotel Beijing and The Ritz-Carlton Beijing. “We are fielding individual requests, but everyone is on a waitlist right now. However, in some cases we have corporate relationships we need to protect, so we will waive the 18-night requirement. But we’re in the driver’s seat as far as booking goes and we haven’t even opened yet.”

Other sports tour packagers include Roadtrips and Sports Traveler.

But for customized, individual travel, the 2008 Summer Olympics are seen by some as a hindrance, not a boon, to travel in China.

“It’s probably better for those kinds of travelers to wait until the Olympics are over,” said Ken Fish, president of Absolute Asia. “Unfortunately, [the Games] come at the peak of the travel season in China.”

Nevertheless, some clients are willing to pay the price: Fish says that a client recently booked 10 suites at The Peninsula for the entire 18 days.

“You can imagine what that cost,” he said.

Tour operators other than CoSport are able to sell packages that include everything but tickets, and they will usually guide clients through the ticket-buying process once they become available. Among them: Abercrombie & Kent, Cox and Kings and Cartan Tours in Manhattan Beach, Calif. For Don Williams, vice president of sales and marketing for Cartan, the equation is quite simple: “You’ve got to have air, hotel and tickets to the events,” he said, “or you can’t go.”

Another problem is that most of the premier events, like swimming and track, are selling out fast.

“When it gets closer to the Olympics,” added Absolute Asia’s Fish, “there will be an effort to get a lot of Chinese to attend the events. If you wait until then, you might get the tickets you want some blocks may be lifted but you are gambling.”

The good news is that tickets, if you can get them, are relatively inexpensive, at least compared to previous Games.

“Beijing took special care to make the pricing low enough so that most of the events, if not all of the events, would sell out,” said Don Vacarro, chief executive of “They didn’t want what happened in Torino, where athletes were playing to less than full houses, to happen in Beijing.”

Typically, seats for baseball, admittedly not a big sport yet in China, can go for as little as $5, although tickets for the opening ceremonies will cost upward of $700.

The first phase of the random lottery to get tickets to Olympic sporting events (again, through CoSport, a New Jersey-based sport travel agency owned by Jet Set Sports) closed at the end of June. Ticket sales for the U.S. will begin again in October, when the second lottery phase begins for China residents. After that, remaining tickets will be on sale to the public in China beginning in April.


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Guestrooms The Shunyi Olympic Rowing-
Canoeing Park is another striking
architectural venue.
Of course, getting to Beijing could be difficult, too. For most airlines, tickets will go on sale as early as 330 days prior to the anticipated date of travel. In other words, travelers should look for flights about six weeks less than one year prior to the date they plan to fly out. The Games begin on Aug. 8, 2008; so if people want to leave for China on Aug. 6, for example, they should start looking for flights now.

Major U.S. airlines, including American Airlines and Northwest Airlines, have submitted applications for the limited number of new air routes that China is allowing in the next few years. Right now, several American carriers fly directly to China, including Continental Airlines, which has daily flights into Beijing from Newark, and United Airlines, which has daily flights into Beijing from San Francisco. Air China also operates direct flights from various U.S. cities, and Air Canada flies to China from Vancouver three times a week.

Several travel agents recommend booking through other national carriers on direct flights that connect through Hong Kong or Singapore, for example, as a way of avoiding the huge demand expected on nonstop flights next summer.

ANA, for one, has asked the Chinese government for permission to run charter flights from Tokyo to Beijing. “Most people will have to stop over somewhere on their way to the Olympics,” said Damion Martin, the airline’s director of marketing and public relations, “and we think that Tokyo is an attractive option. Besides, we would fly out of Haneda, which is like leaving from downtown Tokyo.”

There are also quite a few challenges to the infrastructure of the city as well. The government has spruced up Beijing, adding nearly 100 miles of new roads, extending the bus and subway systems and promising to cut the city’s air pollution by banning half of the estimated 3 million cars that ply the city streets every day. Some hotels will provide their guests with their own transportation, but the use of public transportation will be encouraged. A new subway line built especially for the Olympics will start from downtown and run 3.6 miles to the Olympic Green with four stops along the way. In addition, 38 “Olympic lanes,” or roads, will be built around the Olympic venues specially reserved for buses.

“Priority has been given to developing public bus service,” boasted Beijing Organizing Committee Olympic Games (BOCOG) media coordinator Zhu Jing, “and as a result, 30 percent of Beijing residents now take public transportation.”

Some events, like sailing and soccer, will be held in other cities, but the spillover effect is being felt as far away as Hohhot, a city in Inner Mongolia that isn’t hosting any Olympic events but is getting a new $70 million airport and a highway linking it to Beijing. (The new 10-million-square-foot Terminal 3 at Beijing International Airport will open early 2008, making the Norman Foster-designed terminal the largest in the world.)

Air pollution remains a huge problem in Beijing; this past June the city recorded its worst levels of pollution for that month in seven years, and the head of the International Olympic Committee, Jan Rogge, has threatened to postpone some events if air quality is not up to snuff next summer.

Aside from banning cars from the city on alternating days, Beijing officials are considering moving smoke-spewing factories outside the city limits, or shutting them down altogether for the length of the Games, and even seeding the clouds so it rains at night and washes away pollutants by morning.

One wild card, aside from the scorching heat that attacks Beijing in the summer, is the possibility of sand storms coming up off the Gobi Desert. The effect is to create a blinding brown rain, which brings everything to a grinding halt. One solution has been to plant over 28 million trees, many of them to the east, as a literal hedge against such storms.


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Like the five Olympic rings from which they
draw their color and inspiration, Fuwa
will serve as the official mascots of
the Beijing Games.
One thing is for sure, however: When the Olympics begin, China will be ready.

“We’re a year out, and everything is 95 percent set,” said Donald Harrington, general manager of The Peninsula, which sits across the street from a major subway line. “This is not a last-minute event. It will not be down to the wire like a lot of previous Olympics unless they plan it down to the wire.”

Of the 37 Olympic venues in Beijing (some events, like the equestrian and soccer contests, will be held in other cities), all will be completely finished by the end of 2007 a full seven months before the opening ceremonies. The only exception will be the National Stadium, or what everyone calls the “Bird’s Nest,” because of its provocative design.

And after the first of the year, BOCOG will hold a series of test events to try out the new facilities. On a more personal level, BOCOG officials say they plan to teach conversational English to more than 4 million Beijing residents by the Games’ opening day, and taxi drivers especially are being encouraged to learn the new language so tourists won’t get lost.

So, let the Games begin. For some people, like tour operators, airlines and hotels, it seems that they already have.

“You don’t need to create more demand for this event,” said Laura Liu, vice president for marketing and sales for Northwest Airlines, which flies a daily nonstop from Detroit to Beijing. “It’s created its own demand. You probably don’t even need salespeople for this. You don’t need to sell the Olympics they sell themselves.”

More stories on Beijing:
Heavenly Circumstances

Seeing Red in Today’s China

China’s Boutique Beauties




Here are some useful Web sites for finding information about tour packages and tickets for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

The official ticketing agent for the U.S. and several other countries offers hospitality packages, which include tickets to the Games.

Sports Traveler
Packages include airfare, hotel and tickets of your choice.

This sports travel agency also offers packages

Beijing Tourism Administration
Lists star-rated hotels, resorts, business hotels and eventually will include budget hotels. The site also has a guide for getting around locally.
A China-based hotel Web agent offers packages that include tickets. The company has a U.S. contact number.

Official Olympic Site
Includes the latest news and interactive maps of the city in English.


“Beijing, okay. Beijing, okay,” shouted an excited youth as he leaned out of a car window, waving a small Chinese flag.

It was the night of July 13, 2001, and Beijing had just been awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics. I had attended the announcement at Beijing’s Millennium Monument and it set off a celebration like I have never seen before or since. The streets were so clogged with traffic, people honking their horns and waving flags, that it took us three hours to get back to our hotel, normally a 20-minute taxi ride. It was unusual for Beijing, more like the wild street celebrations you see elsewhere when a team wins a World Cup. I also remember that it was an incredibly hot night I saw the thermometer hit 100 degrees at 10 o’clock at night the previous day in Tiananmen Square. But the thing about that day that has always stuck out for me was the joy and excitement on that young kid’s face as he waved his country’s flag at us.

“Beijing, okay, Beijing, okay,” he shouted excitedly, and that’s exactly what for the Chinese these Olympics are all about: Proving to the world that “Beijing, okay, Beijing okay.” And the rest of China too, for that matter.