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Olympic homestays open door to Beijing life
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Zhu Baohua beamed proudly as he showed a group of American visitors a century-old wooden bed in his house.

Zhu, in his fifties, is the owner of a siheyuan, a traditional courtyard home in downtown Beijing. He was among 598 Beijing homeowners selected as an Olympic host by the city tourism administration on Friday.

The administration initiated the homestay program in April, offering overseas visitors a chance to get to the heart of the Beijing life.

As a supplement to the city's hotels, these households could offer 726 rooms for more than 1,000 visitors, said Xiong Yumei, deputy director of Beijing Tourism Administration.

Most of the families lived near major stadiums, trunk roads, cultural sites and hutongs, or alleyways, making it easy for visitors to enjoy the capital, Xiong said.

Before selecting the families, officials inspected ventilation, lighting, fire safety and sanitation conditions to make sure they met requirements.

Officials recommended rates at US$60-US$80 for each bed per night, but said individual rates could be negotiated between the visitors and the landlords.

For Beijing natives like Zhu, hosting overseas tourists is not only a chance to make a little cash, but also a chance to share his culture.

Zhu's house was bought by his family in the early 1900s. In 2004, he spent more than 4 million yuan (US$579,710) on renovations: "westernizing" the toilet, installing air conditioning and high-definition televisions.

"The whole family are learning the history of siheyuan and hutong. We are professional tour guides now," Zhu said. He also invited his nephews, nieces and their friends who speak English to translate for visitors.

On Sunday, the Zhu family received dozens of foreign tourists who come to see the home.

"In your constitution, you have the pursuit of happiness. Although our cultures are different, we do have a lot in common," a nephew, Zhao Dongyan, told some US visitors, pointing to a red Chinese character "Fu", which translates to blessing or happiness.

"I'm improving my English, so that I can explain better when more visitors come during the Olympics," said Zhao, a new college graduate.

Like the Zhu family, other hosts are preparing to receive guests.

Wang Zhixi, in her fifties, owns a smaller siheyuan near Zhu's. She and her husband are seizing every chance to learn English so that they can tell foreigners about siheyuan.

"My guests ask a lot of questions about siheyuan. For example, they asked why homes were built in all four directions in such crowded spaces," she said. "I told them Chinese families like to live together and it's a way of seeking calm and tranquility in a noisy world."

Wang also had experience hosting overseas visitors. She is currently hosting a French reporter with her 11-month-old son and her mother.

"I try to take good care of my guests in the way that I care for my son, who now works in Canada. I hope they feel the warmth and kindness of the Chinese people," she said.

Apartment owners are also ready to share: making Jiaozi, introducing guests to local delicacies, explaining why the elderly like to keep grasshoppers and birds, or expounding complex theories like Fengshui.

"The accommodations don't have the luxury of a hotel, but they are sure part of genuine Beijing life," said Ron Rice, from Washington DC.

Beijing's tourism authority said travel agencies from Japan, the United States, Canada, Chile and Singapore had considered renting rooms from these families during the Games.

But due to the short marketing time, visa problems and transportation, most of the homestay guests would probably be Asians, said Zhao Xin, director of the Olympic Program of the China International Travel Service.

Those interested could apply at their home travel agencies, he added.

The city expects to see more than 500,000 overseas visitors over the Olympics, and hotels prices are up to four times higher than usual for the time of year.

The city has a total of 660,000 visitor beds. By Friday, about 78 percent of the five-star hotels were booked, but less than half of hotels with four stars or fewer were reserved, said the tourism administration.

Staff with the www.Chinahomestay.org, which plans to recruit 350 host families for a four-week period surrounding the Olympics, said they had been seeing an increase in demand.

"Many visitors who come to China don't want to live alone, and they want to communicate with the local people," said a woman at Chinahomestay.org who gave her name as Chen.

(Xinhua News Agency July 14, 2008)

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