x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

'Bird's Nest' still drawing crowds

When it was announced earlier this month that Rio de Janeiro had won the race to host the 2016 Olympics, organisers knew they had achieved far more than bringing the world's foremost athletics event to South America.

Tourists snap photographs outside Beijing's National Stadium, popularly known as the Bird's Nest.
Tourists snap photographs outside Beijing's National Stadium, popularly known as the Bird's Nest.

BEIJING // When it was announced earlier this month that Rio de Janeiro had won the race to host the 2016 Olympics, organisers knew they had achieved far more than bringing the world's foremost athletics event to South America. They had also been given the chance to leave a legacy in the Brazilian city.

In China the athletes are long gone and the world's attention is starting to focus on London's 2012 Olympics, but people are still flocking to the arenas that hosted last year's games. The huge pedestrian boulevards beside the Beijing National Stadium and the National Aquatic Centre are bustling with visitors even on weekdays, reflecting the popularity they have achieved in their new role as tourist attractions.

In the months following last year's Games, the Olympic complex has also hosted musical concerts and operas - as well as sporting events. The world's most populous nation spent billions of Yuan on the state-of-the-art facilities. According to a spokesman for the development division of Beijing Olympic Park, planning for what use the facilities would be put to after the Games took place from an early stage. "After the successful transformation from Games to post-Games, several benefits - both to the public and economically - have been achieved," he said.

Chief among the area's post- Olympics successes has been attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists, both Chinese and overseas visitors, curious to see the complex. Over one three-day holiday period, for example, the Beijing National Stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest Stadium, attracted 620,000 people. Xiang Jun, director of the office of the board of directors of the stadium, said he was not surprised at the level of interest in the venue.

"China has a lot of people, and the Olympic Games achieved a great victory all over the world, so a lot of people who come to Beijing will come here," he said. "We think it's very natural [the stadium has attracted many visitors] because it's very famous here now." However, Xiang admitted that visitor numbers were likely to drop in future as the novelty wears off, saying that as interest in the London Olympics increased, "we're expecting some decline".

After a slow start in achieving bookings, the stadium has been used for several events, such as operas, ballet and concerts, with Jackie Chan and Placido Domingo among those to have appeared there. The stadium achieved a coup when it attracted the 2009 Race of Champions - which pits top racing drivers from different areas of motorsport against one another - away from London's Wembley Stadium. Five stadiums across the globe bid for the event, which starts two days after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 1 and will be taking place outside Europe for the first time.

Built over four-and-a-half years at a cost of $3.5 billion Yuan (US$513 million, Dh1.89bn), the 91,000 capacity venue generated 260m Yuan in revenue in the nine months to the end of June. This compares to operating costs over the same period of about 45m Yuan. The stadium has also received design accolades, in July winning the Lubetkin Prize from the Royal Institute of British Architects for the most outstanding work outside Europe by one of the organisation's members. Nonetheless, while the stadium has made profits since the Olympics, at the present rate it will take a long time for investors to recoup their money. Indeed Xiang is non-committal about whether this will ever happen.

"It will depend on the future revenue from tourism as well as the frequency of business events and future plans for development, so it's very hard to tell now," he said. To help drum up greater income, there are plans to open themed restaurants, shops and cultural exhibitions at the venue. The Bird's Nest Stadium is part of a complex of venues built for the Olympics. Other elements include the National Aquatic Centre, better known as the Water Cube, where the UAE flag is among the many that still hang inside the venue, which was on the Lubetkin Prize shortlist. Costing 1.02bn Yuan, the Water Cube was where the American swimmer Michael Phelps broke seven world records and won eight gold medals. It has attracted 4.5 million visitors since opening to the public - even more than the Bird's Nest Stadium.

Nonetheless, those in charge of the Water Cube are, like the Bird's Nest Stadium management, keen to increase revenue, so there are plans to turn the centre into a water amusement park. The Olympic venue cluster also includes the National Indoor Stadium and the National Conference Centre. Nearby are other elements of the wider Beijing Olympic Park, including venues used for the Asian Games in 1990, among them the Workers Stadium, which dates back to 1959, and the Workers Indoor Arena.

dbardsley@thenational.ae