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Three decades ago, the word "luxury" was a six-letter word that in China could land you in jail -- or at best in the deep, dark countryside for a dose of "re-education" in a paddy field or wheat mill. Just 30 years after late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping kick-started economic reforms to save the flailing Communist giant, moneyed Beijingers whose grandparents would have been garbed in drab blue Mao suits now shop at Gucci and Chanel.
The one-storey shacks that so recently housed entire families are now either museum pieces or razed to the ground, having made way for gated villa complexes, glitzy western-style shopping malls and towering serviced apartments. So is this it? Is Beijing [Images] really up there with the best of the world's culture capitals?
It's doing its best, and it'll do just fine for the Olympics [Images]. But it's not quite there yet, says Guy Rubin, managing partner of Imperial Tours, which was founded eight years ago to cater to top-end tourists in Beijing.
"We have to have a bit of a reality check before we compare it to the other world cities," he says. "I don't think the facilities are quite like you get in London [Images], New York and Paris. That's over-stating it. But on the other hand, I think there's a lot more here than the average American or British traveler would expect."
It certainly seems there's no shortage of luxury options for those wanting to experience the Beijing Olympics in style.
Under guidelines set by the Beijing Tourism Bureau, which says it expects 1.5 million tourists for the Games, five-star rooms should be in the region of $380 per night, $300 for four-star. Hotels are, in fact, so confident of filling their rooms, they're ignoring these pointers and charging up to 10 times that. In response, the Bureau says its responsibility stops at supervising quality, and it cannot -- or will not -- interfere with individual hotels' pricing policies. And despite the hikes, the rooms are going fast.
The 305-room, five-star Ritz-Carlton Beijing, the second in the city, opened just a month ago. "We were sold out for the Olympics a year before we opened," says director of communications Kaarin Lindsay. "And all the bookings are for a minimum of 14 nights." Many of the top-end hotels, such as the Hilton, the Regent Beijing and the Peninsula, a grand, marble-foyered hotel just off the most famous shopping street in the Chinese capital, Wangfujing, are telling similar stories.
But Beijing does have 120 top-grade hotels, according to the Tourism Bureau. Many of their rooms have been snapped up by tour companies, so if rooms are not available from the hotels themselves, most will still be in the sticky hands of the agents -- but not for much longer.
The China World Hotel was the recent choice of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his visit to Beijing. It offers everything a first-class traveler would want, with the advantage of a great location right on top of one of Beijing's most glitzy brand-name shopping malls, and a short ride from the embassy district with its accompanying restaurants and nightlife.
The quiet but central Spring Garden Courtyard offers luxury rooms positioned around a central courtyard, each styled according to a particular Chinese emperor or dynasty. English is not the best at this hotel, but sign language and smiles work wonders and when it comes to booking rooms. There are more than 100 photographs of historic Beijing on show, among many other typical Chinese artifacts. The hotel is a four-star option, but it can make the China experience seem much more authentic.
When it comes to choosing accommodation, distance to the Games venues need not be a top priority. The Beijing Government has promised to control the traffic -- and when it says it will control something, it usually does, even if it means banishing half of the car population from the roads during the Olympics. All venues should be within half an hour's drive from most hotels, even if you're staying at the Kempinski-run Commune by the Great Wall, which, as its name suggests, provides guests with a panoramic view of China's most famous monument (the property is about half and hour north of Beijing by expressway).
Contrary to rumors, tickets are still available for all events -- in Beijing, anyway. The safest bet is to go through the official ticketing websites, including www.beijingticketing.com, www.chinaolympic2008tickets.com, and www.beijing-2008tickets.com, www.cosport.com, or en.beijing2008.cn. Alternatively, check out www.sportstraveler.com or www.onpointevents.com.
Though their prices are different, each ticketing site claims to have tickets for the much-hyped opening ceremony, which will be choreographed by film director (and national treasure) Zhang Yimou [Images] (of House of Flying Daggers fame). The websites pledge to deliver tickets to any address at least two weeks before the Games are scheduled to start, and each purchase is given a tracking and booking reference. According to Feng Qihua at the international press center in Beijing, tickets for the first week will almost certainly be available for some events even after the Games have opened.
"If there are any left, they will of course be on sale at the events," she says.
The best way to a worry-free Beijing 2008 may be to go for one of the many attractive packages on offer. Most offer a couple of events and at least one day's sightseeing, and start from around $4,000. Many are much, much more expensive.
The offers, however pricey they get, won't be available for long. "There aren't many cities that can sustain two Ritz-Carltons," says Kaarin Lindsay. "And regardless of the Olympics, we would have opened two in Beijing because we believe Beijing can sustain them. What happens after the Olympics is of no concern to us."
Guy Rubin agrees. "Beijing's about to change hugely," he says. "It's not New York yet, but it's going to really start pushing for it. There are a lot of things in the pipeline that haven't even started yet."
See slideshow of Beijing's hottest hotels before, during and after the Olympic Games.
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