Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 11 News List

China holds `death of SARS' banquet


The beer flowed, acrobats flipped and traditional Chinese instruments sang out as Beijing tried to boost its SARS-battered tourism industry with a bash for foreign visitors at the Great Hall of the People.

More than 500 tourists from Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were treated to a banquet and show Friday -- a week after the World Health Organization (WHO) lifted a travel advisory on Beijing that had devastated the Chinese capital's economy.

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

Meanwhile, health officials in Taiwan -- the last area on the WHO list of SARS-affected areas -- expressed hope that the island would soon be removed from the list.

Yesterday, Taiwan reported no new infections for the 20th straight day since its last patient was hospitalized -- making it eligible to be dropped from the WHO list.

"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 building where China's legislature meets beside Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing.

Camera crews and photographers milled among diners at red-draped tables, while musicians performed 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 SARS, which 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 118 billion yuan (US$14 billion) last year, but revenues this year are expected to be 45 billion yuan (US$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.

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