Games venues being turned into cash cows
After intermittent rain the previous day and night, Beijing residents awoke yesterday to a spectacular blue sky, an unusually refreshing departure from the muggy, smoggy weather since the beginning of this month.
On the second anniversary of the much-praised Beijing Summer Olympics, the smog has long returned, and so has the snarled traffic. Municipal officials riding happily on post-Olympic glory and envisaging the city becoming a world-class metropolis are most likely to take all this in stride.
Indeed, they have good reason to take pride in their achievements to confound the previous fears that the Beijing Games, arguably the most expensive in Olympic history, would leave a cluster of white elephants.
The 'Bird's Nest' National Stadium, and the 'Water Cube' National Aquatics Centre on the Olympic Green have become the city's hottest tourist attractions. Between October 2008 and July, the Bird's Nest received 13 million visitors and the Water Cube 4.5 million. During summer peak seasons, the daily number of visitors for the two venues was once even higher than those for the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. In less than two years, the two sites alone brought in 700 million yuan (HK$802 million) in revenue, of which the Bird's Nest raked in 550 million, mostly from ticket sales.
The fact that the two landmarks are profitable is a tremendous achievement considering all the glum stories about how the huge venues in other Olympic host cities, such as Athens, have stood empty.
However, there are also rising concerns that the Beijing municipal government - particularly the operator of those venues, the Beijing State-owned Assets Management Company - has focused too much on using the two venues as cash cows than how to use them for the public good.
In particular, the operation of the Water Cube has been leased to a Sichuan -based private company that rumours say will use its fame and revenue to boost its chance of a successful stock market flotation down the road.
That is going a bit too far, given the fact that more than 90 per cent of the venue's cost - 1.1 billion yuan - was donated by 350,000 overseas Chinese from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and elsewhere in the world. Those included the biggest donation, from Henry Fok, the late tycoon, who reportedly gave HK$200 million, and a five-year-old boy in Macau who gave one pataca.
As mainland leaders have repeatedly said, the Beijing Games were not only about Beijing, and their resounding success was due to help and support from Chinese all over the world.
In a show of gratitude, the two sites should have been run as non-profit facilities, and admission should have been free to every Chinese who wants to take a peak. Instead, everyone has to pay 50 yuan to get into the Bird's Nest and 30 yuan to enter the Water Cube.
Officials have justified ticket sales by saying that about 70 million yuan is needed annually to maintain the Bird's Nest and about 40 million yuan for the Water Cube.
But that's no excuse to charge such high admission fees. Taxpayers in the city, including this writer, would surely be more than happy to see the government provide adequate subsidies in this regard. Moreover, the operator can derive sizeable revenue from marketing activities such as concerts and sporting events, commercial leasing and brand developments to make up for the shortfall, not to mention that visits to the Olympic Green are likely to prolong the stay of tourists who already spend a bundle on food, dining, and lodging in the city.
But the opposite is happening. The state-owned operator of the Water Cube has reportedly entered into a joint venture with a company called China Dead Sea, a subsidiary of a Sichuan private company called Sichuan Tianyou, and Dead Sea has taken the majority holding. It has begun to operate the revamped Water Cube, including an indoor water park with an admission charge of 200 yuan per person. The water park alone is expected to rake in about 160 million yuan a year. And it still charges 30 yuan to just walk inside (but not use the facilities) and 50 yuan to swim in the pool for two hours (but not use the water park).
This is hardly what the donors had in mind.