There is so much talk among expats and foreign newspapers these days about the lack of visitors to Beijing for this year's Olympics. Almost everyone is blaming things on China's heightened visa requirements as the thing that's keeping everyone away. There are a lot of things to blame for the lack of visitors, but visa issues are one of the last ones that should be talked about.
The visa tightening has effected a lot of the long-term expats and small-time businessmen who have always found it easy to renew their tourist visas or make a quick run to Hong Kong and come back in. It's become a hassle for tourists traveling from abroad, requiring them to show their incoming and outgoing flights as well as hotel reservations, but it's not a major stumbling block. The majority of people who are applying for tourist visas are still being granted their tourist visas.
So why aren't people coming to Beijing?
I'd expect if you look at the numbers for the Seoul Olympics, the number of visitors was probably lower than for the Games in LA and Barcelona. Europe and America have the largest population of individuals with expendable income and these are the people that usually go to the Olympics. It's a lot easier for someone in the UK or France to get to Barcelona than to get to Beijing. Much like the World Cup when it was in Asia, the number of visitors goes down because of the distance and the cost. There's also the distance in culture, for many Americans, considering a trip to China is something far greater and daunting than a trip to Barcelona or Athens due to the cultural and language barriers that exist as well as the huge time zone differences.
2. The Economy/Costs
Ahh, the cost. Going along with 1, since Asia's far away, it also costs more to get there. Gas prices are rising and therefore so is the price of airfare. Prices this summer are between $500-1,000 more than they were last summer and that has nothing to do with the Olympics (if you look at prices in say, October, they will also be well above the price in October of last year). I've always said that the airfare is expensive, but once you get to Beijing, everything's cheap, including hotels; that's not the case this year. Hotels are priced US$100-500 or more than what they'd usually cost and the rumors were that they'd be very hard to come by (this has proven to not be the case). We have expensive airfare and hotel rooms and on top of that, there's the tanking US economy, where even white collar mid-management types have concerns about how long they'll have their jobs for.
3. Irrational Expectations
The Chinese made a lot of "promises" about these Games and predicted a huge amount of tourists would flock to Beijing, despite the above 2 issues. Yet most articles are now stating that the number of tourists is down this year and that when all is said and done, the numbers will probably match or just barely exceed the number of tourists that visited Beijing last year. What the Chinese didn't realize is that a lot of regular tourists don't want to come due to fear of the Olympic masses taking over the city and making a hassle out of everything. Olympic tourist expectations were probably far too liberal as well, due to the above 2 factors. China didn't help itself with the T!bet controversy and the torch relay, though this probably was, if anything, a minor factor. Further, all the problems are somewhat connected, the bad economy means people are willing to spend less on a vacation, due to irrational expectations hotel owners raised their prices to outrageous proportions, therefore the tourists decided to stay away instead of coming.
Visa issues and changes have created a lot of headaches for businessmen and have had a major impact on the business community, but they've had minimal impact on Olympics travelers. If crowds are down, it's easy to blame it on visas, but other factors should be looked at first.