BEIJING — Just five months after the Beijing Olympics, the Bird’s Nest is a cavernous museum searching for a new purpose.
The iconic National Stadium drew acclaim for its daring design, an engineering marvel that borders on sculpture. Now it draws about 10,000 tourists a day — mostly Chinese — who pay 50 yuan (about $7) to walk on the stadium floor, then climb through the expensive seats to a souvenir shop hawking pricey mementos recalling Zhang Yimou’s dazzling opening ceremony or the three world records set by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
A symbol of China’s rising power and confidence, the stadium has doubters that it will ever recoup the $450 million the government spent to build it, particularly as China’s economic slump worsens.
It has yet to draw big-ticket events, has no permanent tenant, and only one date has been announced for this year. Puccini’s opera, “Turandot,” directed by Zhang, is set for Aug. 8 — the one-year anniversary of the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
This is a long-term worry for the company that manages the stadium.
Beijing CITIC Consortium Stadium Operations Co. Ltd., part of a government-owned investment company, says the stadium can generate annual revenue of $30 million, even while acknowledging that estimate is “optimistic.” This may concern China’s communist government, but visitors don’t seem to mind.
“I’m not clear about the plans for the stadium, but I just feel that there’ll be lots of culture and sports events here,” said Gao Yunfei, bundled up against gusting winds and 20-degree temperatures as he left after touring the venue on a recent afternoon.
Told the stadium might remain mostly vacant, Gao replied: “I feel that would be a little wasteful.”
Paint is already peeling in places inside the stadium and soot dulls the gleaming lattice work, details probably overlooked by tourists — many from outside Beijing — who travel to visit the stunning structure.
Despite Christmas decorations that have been in place for a month, the stadium is largely a cheerless place, particularly in the dead of winter.
“No matter how much was spent, the stadium is necessary as a symbol of the country,” said Li Bo, a young woman visiting from Chengdu, a city in southwestern China. “I’m sure the government will have ways to deal with any problem.”
The stadium didn’t come cheaply, and neither do the official souvenirs.
A metallic replica of the stadium goes for 4,800 yuan (about $700), a replica torch kit is 2,900 (about $430) and baseball caps are a more affordable 98 ($14). Of course, street vendors outside the stadium offer counterfeit merchandise at one-tenth the price.
Inside, a public-address announcer warns people against buying fakes.
A few tourists even fork over another 200 yuan (about $30) to be photographed — dressed in the red and yellow uniforms of the game’s officials — standing on the winner’s podium holding a bouquet of roses in one hand and waving an Olympic torch with the other.
The Bird’s Nest was one of 12 venues built in Beijing for the Olympics. All told, there were 31 venues (eight temporary and 11 renovated) in the city. Five more were outside Beijing.
Most of the temporary venues will be razed. Some of the permanent ones have found uses, notably venues for swimming and tennis.
The Water Cube, site of Michael Phelps’ record eight gold medals, will be converted to a waterpark and swimming center with much of the seating removed. The tennis stadium will host the China Open, a lucrative WTA-ATP event, later this year.
The Bird’s Nest is a special case.
Rent was too expensive to lure the city’s top soccer club, Guo’an, which backed out of a deal to play in the 91,000-seat stadium. Plans calls for scaling it back to 80,000 seats. The government-run China Daily recently described the Bird’s Nest as a “tourist trap,” and senior citizens have complained there are no half-price tickets.
Dennis Howard, professor of business at the University of Oregon who specializes in sports marketing, said major stadiums in the U.S. don’t pay their way and he suggested it would be no different in China.
“The only way to build an economic justification is on the ability of the facility . . . (to) host events that attract new money into the Beijing or China economy,” Howard said in an e-mail.
“These would have to be large-scale international events that attract thousands of foreign visitors. The key question is whether a plan has been formulated to host a number of events of this magnitude.” Apparently there is such a plan. But will it work? So far, the Puccini opera in August is the only booking for the stadium that has been confirmed by CITIC, the management company.
Italian newspapers have reported the Italian Super Cup final will be played at the stadium this summer, but CITIC has not confirmed it.
In a reply to written questions from The Associated Press, CITIC officials said five events had been confirmed and five others were still in the discussion stage. They offered no more details.
CITIC said its operation plan calls for generating annual income of 200 million yuan (about $30 million) to cover maintenance and other expenses, and produce a small profit. It was not clear whether debt service was included in the calculations.
“It is an optimistic estimate that the investment can be recovered in 30 years,” CITIC said.
Added Howard, the business professor: “Given the absence of tenants and limited prospects for corporate support, where’s the $30 million coming from?” The management company said that bids for lucrative naming rights — potentially a large revenue producer — were not being taken, partly due to the slowing Chinese economy and because of the iconic nature of the stadium.
Many Chinese oppose a commercial name for the stadium, comparing it to national symbols like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower.
“Many companies have shown interest in the naming rights,” the company said. “However, we will not accept bids for naming rights, believing the Chinese public would oppose such a move. However, it is possible we may still seek individual sponsorship for matches, performances or areas inside the stadium. These sponsorships would not exclude foreign companies.
“A naming of the stadium may not fit the Bird’s Nest, and we must fully consider the feelings of the Chinese population and explore ways to exploit the value of the brand and preserve the spirit and legacy of the Games.”
Officials hope China’s huge population of 1.3 billion will give the Bird’s Nest an advantage over main stadiums built for other Olympics. The stunning architecture — designed by Swiss Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron — is also a selling point as a tourist attraction.
“The stadium is more unique than other Olympic stadiums,” CITIC said. “The decisive thing will be the ability to exploit this intangible asset. . . . The Bird’s Nest is special because it’s not simply a stadium for one Olympics, but also a symbol of national pride and hope.”
In other countries, the Bird’s Nest might be revealed as a white elephant — an expensive possession with little commercial value.
But in China, the government and state-controlled media are unlikely to advertise the fact and citizens will never know the real cost.
Hein Verbruggen, who headed the International Olympic Committee’s oversight panel for the Beijing Games, hopes the stadium will pay for itself and find a purpose.
“It’s clear the IOC doesn’t want any white elephants,” Verbruggen said. “We’ve paid a price for that. Our product is an image product. You have to cut out everything that can negatively impact the image.”
Verbruggen was impressed by China’s organization of the Games and confident top officials had a plan to make the stadium financially viable.
“I don’t know if this is something that will cost them a lot of money or not,” Verbruggen said. “If it does, they must have calculated it beforehand because I haven’t come across one little detail they have not calculated or thought about.”