Turmoil puts Kiwi sports fans off Olympics

01:43, Jan 31 2009
NO THANKS: China's human rights record, politics, pollution and even the cost of getting there are putting off many Kiwis from going to the Beijing Olympics.

Kiwis are shunning the Beijing Olympic Games, worried about China's human rights record, politics, pollution and the cost of travelling there.

Travel agents say Kiwi sports fans are ignoring the August summer games like never before - just as politicians and businesses eye the expected signing of a coveted but controversial free trade agreement in China next month.

Prime Minister Helen Clark, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker and Auckland Mayor John Banks are expected to head delegations to China in coming weeks.

Several thousand Kiwis attended the Sydney Olympics in 2000, though fewer went to Athens four years ago, and Beijing is distantly behind both for bookings.

The cost of travelling to the Olympics is dependent on which events people attend, but packages including popular sports such as athletics can cost more than $8000 for seven nights.

Christchurch company Warwick Beatson Travel, which runs sports tours, has less than 10 bookings for the games - a situation similar to many travel firms across the country.

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Owner Warwick Beatson said he had never before seen such a lack of interest in the summer games.

"People are saying they are not interested in China because of its political and human rights [problems] and the physical presence of Beijing, with its pollution.

"I just cannot see that things are going to change with that between now and the Olympics. In terms of this company, it would be the worst interest we've seen in summer Olympics."

Beatson said there was "massive interest" in the winter Olympics to be held next year in Canada.

"There has never been an occasion in 26 years where I can remember the winter Olympics has dominated the summer Olympics in people's choices of where to travel to."

An Auckland travel agent, who declined to be named, said close supporters of Kiwi competitors made up the bulk of people interested in travelling.

"Kiwi travellers are wary of going to China for the games for a lot of reasons, including the human rights and political situation. The Tibet situation [recent protests for Tibet independence] probably doesn't help. I just don't think they feel secure that the games will go off well," he said.

Flight Centre spokeswoman Melanie Pohl said customers showed more interest in visiting Hong Kong for the equestrian events than going to mainland China.

"I'm sure the negative publicity would have had an affect. It's a shame because it is one of the closer games we've had."

House of Travel retail director Brent Thomas said the games always attracted less interest than other events such as rugby tours and it was a costly event to attend. "China doesn't have the same appeal as a destination as some European destinations. It has an unknown quality about it."

Sunday Star Times