Beijing throws surprise party for visitors in bid to revive SARS-hit tourist industry

Friday, July 4th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ The beer flowed, acrobats flipped and traditional Chinese instruments sang out as Beijing sought to boost its SARS-battered tourism industry Friday night with a surprise bash for visitors at the Great Hall of the People.

More than 500 visitors from Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were treated to a free banquet and show in a bid to revive tourism following last week's lifting of a World Health Organization advisory against traveling to China's capital.

City tourism officials said they hoped publicity of the event would spread the word that Beijing is a safe place to visit. They said they planned to offer banquets to a total of 1,500 tourists.

``Beijing can guarantee you a wonderful, safe visit, and unforgettable memories,'' Tourism Bureau Director Yu Changjiang said in a speech to diners.

Waiters in black tie served course after course of Chinese delicacies in an enormous third-floor hall in the legislature building beside Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing.

Camera crews and photographers milled among diners at red-draped tables, while musicians churned out folk songs on the erhu, pipa and other traditional stringed instruments.

Beijing offered the banquets to the first tour groups to arrive on Friday.

``I was gobsmacked when they told us about it,'' said Jan Lokan, from Australia, part of a 30-member tour group who arrived Friday. The group received a police escort from the airport and were greeted with musicians and dancers at their hotel, she said.

Another member of the group, Jean Christie, said she booked the tour months ago, before the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed 348 people in China and sickened more than 5,300. About half of all cases and deaths were in Beijing, the hardest hit place in the global outbreak, which is believed to have originated last November in southern China.

``We were just hoping that SARS would be over by the time we came,'' Christie said.

Hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists heeded the WHO advisory and stayed away from China during the outbreak. Millions of Chinese tourists also kept away due to travel restrictions. aimed at containing the flu-like illness.

No newly isolated cases of the disease have been announced in Beijing in about one month.

Tourism earned Beijing $14 billion in 2002, but revenues in that sector this year are expected to be $5.4 billion below that.

In addition to the banquet, Beijing is conducting promotions in major tourist markets such as Japan, Korea, France and Germany and will sell tickets to attractions at off-season prices.