QINGDAO, China (Reuters) - The drafting of thousands of troops to battle a massive algae bloom in Olympic co-host city Qingdao showed China’s resolve to hold a successful sailing event at all costs.
It also added to an already heavy security presence aimed at safeguarding the Games regatta which locals complain has kept tourists away, hurt business and left a tense atmosphere in a usually bucolic seaside resort.
As bands of sweaty soldiers, common volunteers and melancholy tourists toiled on beaches to fight the stinking green tide, tourism workers chafed at stricter rules governing visas, an unspoken ban on mass gatherings and pricey hotel rooms.
“People here are already talking of a missed Olympic opportunity,” said Nigel Edwards, general manager of the four-star Copthorne Hotel, one of Qingdao’s six official 2008 Games hotels.
“The authorities have created a situation where no one comes, so they can control what happens. All they want to do is hold an incident-free Games. They really don’t care about the financial aspect,” said Edwards, who lobbied authorities successfully to scrap plans for a two-meter (6 feet) high electric fence around his hotel.
Like Beijing, the former German concession port in eastern Shandong province has spared no expense in hosting the Games, pouring 80 billion yuan ($11.66 billion) into infrastructure upgrades and beautification.
The Games will leave a sparkling new airport, an acclaimed 3.28 billion yuan marina that replaced moribund shipyards and a cleaner, greener city dotted with new luxury apartments and shopping malls.
But efforts to secure the event, which have seen tour operators struggle to get approvals to book large groups, could see empty shops and hotel rooms.
“Business is much poorer than in past years,” said Liu Lihua, manager of Qingdao Weilanhai Tourism. “There are obviously fewer tourists because of the new Olympic regulations.”
Visa restrictions have also made it harder for foreign businessmen to travel to Qingdao, and thinned out its sizeable expatriate community.
“There have been lots of going-away parties lately,” said Patrick Regan, an engineer working for Nike.
With the city’s biggest outbreak of algae, beaches usually crowded with Chinese tourists have played host instead to earth-moving equipment and trucks loaded with green sludge.
Officials tried to be upbeat about the reeking swathes of green coating Qingdao’s shores.
“It seems some tourists are very happy to see (the algae), because it’s not something you usually see,” said Qingdao Sailing Committee spokesman Wang Haitao.
Qingdao had at least met its pledge to rid the sailing competition area of algae by a July 15 deadline, officials said.
Olympic sailors, who weeks before were tacking to avoid huge clumps of weed, said the algae should not be a problem come race day.
Although the algae has deterred sun-seeking tourists, larger commercial opportunities may be lost through the city’s inability to showcase its nascent boating industry to potential investors during the Games period.
“The administrative approvals to have people watching on the water or hold corporate events around the venue are just too complicated,” said Adrien Magnan, from Shanghai-based Marine Dragon Consulting.
“We were quite disappointed as we thought it would be quite an opportunity for us.”
Magnan said the authorities, however, could not be faulted for their commitment to developing sailing, still in its infancy and struggling to take a foothold.
“They are really trying hard and putting big money into it. Things are happening. The market is still small, but they are pushing sailing at the grassroots, which is good.”
In partnership with local companies, the city has donated more than 1,000 boats to 36 schools as part of a pilot programme to train students in sailing, according to officials.
“All these efforts are aimed at building Qingdao into a real sailing city after the Games,” said Wang.
Underscoring the city’s determination to hold a successful sailing event is a pledge to use artificial weather manipulation, like Beijing, to prevent an untimely downpour from spoiling local opening and closing ceremonies.
But no amount of resources or manpower can manufacture wind at the seaside resort, which is typically light in August and compounded by strong currents.
Although impressed by the Olympic marina, and China’s power to mobilize an army to clear algae from competition areas, sailors are less salutary toward conditions on the water.
“It’s China. It’s always going to be a challenge,” said Iain Murray, from the Australian team. “The Olympic facilities are unbelievable, but we’re here to race.”
Sailing races are due to start on August 9, weather permitting.
(Editing by Brian Rhoads and Jerry Norton)