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Cost puts damper on this Olympic event

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It seemed like a good idea. Bring your adopted Chinese daughters (and they're almost all daughters) back to Beijing to experience the glories of the 2008 Summer Olympics, connect with the homeland and watch the Middle Kingdom at a key moment in its history.

Then parents started checking the prices, which can run to $15,000 per person or more, including airfare, inflated hotel bills and tickets.

"The Olympics are great exposure for China, which is changing so quickly," Brandon Cozier, from Houston, said recently outside the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou with his wife, Juliette, having come to pick up Kyra, their second adopted daughter. "But $15,000 is almost as much as we spent for her adoption."

Other concerns weighing on the minds of adoptive parents include pollution, the prospect of young children waiting in long lines in August heat that can exceed 100 degrees and the difficulties visitors face getting tickets to popular Olympics events.

China fired its ticket marketing director after a computer system designed to handle 150,000 transactions an hour crashed Oct. 30 under the pressure of 8 million hourly hits. Corporations also have blocked off large numbers of tickets for their clients, further limiting the prospects for ordinary folks.

"In the past, you had an official Olympic beer and an official car," said Jane Liedtke, head of Our Chinese Daughters Foundation, a nonprofit adoption agency and travel service based in Bloomington, Ill. "But this time, they have sponsors down to very minute areas, the official toothpick, toilet paper, you name it, each with priority for tickets."

About 50,000 Chinese children have been adopted by Americans since Beijing implemented its international adoption program in 1992, with many returning at some point for "heritage" and cultural tours.

Liedtke, who considered and ultimately abandoned the idea of organizing an Olympics tour for adoptive families, said rapacious pricing appears to be the norm. This led to a fear on her part, given China's still-nascent service culture, that some bus or hotel operator would drop her group at the last minute if someone else came through the door with a higher offer.

The ticket sellers "are very talented people with a monopoly -- some would say worse than a monopoly," she said. "We hit sticker shock."

A random sampling of four- and five-star hotels in Beijing finds many fully booked or reserved for Olympic Organizing Committee members during the Games, which will be held Aug. 8-24. Prices for accommodations are approaching five to six times normal rates.

Du Jiang, head of the Beijing Tourism Bureau, said the capital would have 800 hotels, including more than 55 now under construction, with at least a one-star rating by August, and that the government hadn't ruled out some form of intervention if rates soar. Other Chinese officials have suggested that tourists should haggle.

"I was ready to make plans to go, even with it being in the summer and knowing how crowded and nutty it would be," said Cindee Goldstein, a registered nurse in Davie, Fla., whose 5-year-old adopted daughter, Maia, is a budding gymnast. "But it seems like these events keep getting [more] elitist. Only the rich can afford them, which is not right."

Lotus Travel in Bellevue, Wash., which also specializes in travel arrangements for adoptive families, is offering tours in August but said a number of potential customers had walked away or been hesitant to put down more than an initial deposit on tour packages. These packages range from $3,200 to $3,800 a person for 17 to 20 days, not including airfare or admission to events.

"People can't afford this," said Lea Xu, a company vice president. "Many say, 'Why do I need to go now? I'll travel some other time.' "

An additional deterrent for adoptive families, experts said, is that many have special requests related to their children that would be difficult to accommodate during the Games, such as a visit to the orphanage where their daughter came from or, in one case, a Bat Mitzvah ceremony on the Great Wall.

China is officially atheist and doesn't welcome open displays of religion, particularly at national monuments. "Can you imagine how the Chinese government would view that request?" Liedtke said. "Americans sometimes [don't] think."

Faced with the impediments, Our Chinese Daughters Foundation decided to organize its own Olympics event. It rented part of the Illinois State University campus and has invited adoptive parents to participate in a Parade of Chinese Provinces, official Olympics shopping and various team sporting events for children. There also will be a live satellite feed of the Beijing opening ceremonies. The event will cost a more manageable $375 to $675 for one adult and one child.

Lotus Travel, a for-profit company, said it expects high costs and pent-up demand to make 2009 a better year for business than 2008, as many adoptive families wait for the coast to clear.

The company's business has also slowed down since March, when China imposed new restrictions denying adoptions to parents who are obese, single, homosexual, depressed, have a "severely distorted appearance" or lack a high school education.

"We can tell it's dropping," said Xu, the company vice president, "although we're happy that fewer Chinese children are being abandoned."

Cathy and Dave O'Keeffe, who live in Moline, Ill., stood in the lobby of the White Swan with their newly adopted 9-month-old daughter, Maeve, squirming in their arms. The way they see it, Beijing should bid for the Games again in 2016, when they don't have three young children and can better afford to attend.

"Then our daughter would be 9 or 10 and much better able to appreciate it," said Dave O'Keeffe, a marketing manager. "I'm just not sure we need to do the Olympics now."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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