BEIJING — The beer flowed, acrobats flipped and traditional Chinese instruments were played as Beijing sought to boost its SARS-battered tourism industry Friday night with a surprise bash for visitors at the Great Hall of the People.
More than 500 visitors from Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were treated to a free banquet and show in a bid to revive tourism after last week's lifting of a World Health Organization advisory against traveling to China's capital.
Meanwhile, health officials in Taiwan -- the last place on the WHO list of areas affected by severe acute respiratory syndrome -- expressed hope that it would soon be removed from the list, as no new cases had been reported for 19 consecutive days.
If the streak continues today, Taiwan could be eligible to be removed, Taiwan's Center for Disease Control chief Su Ih-jen said. The WHO requires that 20 days pass without a new case of SARS before an area can be removed.
As of Friday, the number of probable SARS cases in Taiwan stood at 674 and the death toll remained unchanged at 84, the highest after China and Hong Kong.
Beijing tourism officials said they planned to offer banquets to a total of 1,500 tourists.
"Beijing can guarantee you a wonderful, safe visit and unforgettable memories," tourism bureau director Yu Changjiang said in a speech to diners.
Waiters in black tie served course after course of Chinese delicacies in an enormous third-floor hall in the legislature building beside Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital.
Camera crews and photographers milled among diners at the red-draped tables, while musicians churned out folk songs on the erhu, pipa and other traditional stringed instruments.
"I was gobsmacked when they told us about it," said Jan Lokan of Australia, part of a 30-member tour group that arrived Friday. The visitors received a police escort from the airport and were greeted with musicians and dancers at their hotel, she said.
SARS killed 348 people in China and sickened more than 5,300. About half of all cases and deaths were in Beijing, the hardest-hit place in the global outbreak, which is believed to have originated in November in southern China.