Hotel being built within Summer Palace, but public not welcome

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2008, 12:00am

Some of the ancient buildings at the Summer Palace - one of the most cherished Unesco World Heritage sites in the nation - are to be converted into a luxury hotel and club, off-limits to ordinary visitors.

Renovations are under way to transform a number of traditional, single-storey buildings into a six-star hotel and club inside the 258-year-old palace, now a public park.

Aman Resorts, based in Singapore, plans to open a top-class resort in the park later this year.

A Ministry of Construction spokesman confirmed the deal, but refused to disclose details yesterday.

The opening was originally scheduled to be in time for the Olympic Games in August, but the resort group's executive director, Trina Dingler-Ebert, said it was likely to be in the autumn. 'We are in the process of working on this and although the plans were to open in time for the Games, there's still so much to do that it's looking unlikely,' she said.

Aman Resorts owns 18 exclusive resorts in 12 countries, including a private island in the Philippines and a nature reserve east of Bali.

Landscape designer Belt Collins said it was working with Aman on the project. 'The Summer Palace Club is a unique entity situated within the grounds of the historic ... complex on the outskirts of Beijing,' the firm said. 'The project is envisioned as a private exclusive social club catering to international executives.

'Club amenities include multiple dining and special function venues, a lounge, a performance pavilion, a boutique hotel and an underground spa ... The seating, water features and lighting will all pay homage to the culture of the Qing dynasty imperial garden. The overall effect though is one of greater international appeal and intellectual accessibility.'

The hotel will be situated just a few metres from the Garden of Harmonious Interests, or Xiequyuan, at the northern tip of the park where willow tree branches hang over a tranquil pool.

But residents and tourists criticised the plan saying it should not be allowed. 'It's terrible,' Beijing resident Hu Huili, 57, said. 'The government should never let this happen. In the past, only the emperor could come. Ordinary people were not allowed to visit this place. Are we going to be forbidden from visiting these places once again?'

Jia Guoyun, a tourist from Hebei , said: 'There shouldn't be a hotel inside one of our cultural sites. Why can't they build one outside?'

Xiao Lu, 29, said: 'They shouldn't open coffee bars, hotels or anything [commercial] inside our cultural sites. They should open them outside. If they renovate and use the Summer Palace as a hotel then ordinary people won't be able to go and have a look.'

But authorities and hotel management said the plan would fit well with the ancient imperial garden.

Xu Zhiyong, a district legislature deputy, said the public should not challenge the project. 'In the Summer Palace, there are quite a few buildings empty and - in a sense - wasted. As long as they keep the buildings' external design and as long as the harmonious layout of the palace is not interrupted, this should be treated merely as an upgrade of facilities. We could hardly say that it is wrong,' Mr Xu said.

Ms Dingler-Ebert failed to see any reason for concern. 'Aman is very sensitive to the cultural heritage of any place that we open a resort in.'

The Summer Palace has survived two serious attacks in its history - first when the Anglo-French army ransacked it in 1860 and another during the Boxer Uprising in 1900.

In December 1998, Unesco included it on the World Heritage List, declaring it an 'outstanding expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in a harmonious whole'.

In July, a branch of US coffee shop chain Starbucks in the Forbidden City in Beijing was forced to close after protests were staged. China Central Television personality and blogger Rui Chenggang led the protests, saying the shop was a slur on the 600-year-old site.

Additional reporting by Stephen Chen