Foreign guests visiting China have often asked one another for tips on how to find a hotel that allows visitors to circumvent the Great Fire Wall, and its bans on popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter and the New York Times. The answer has usually been, try one of the major Western hotels. No longer.
As China extends a deepening crackdown on the use of services to get around its blocks of a variety of overseas sites, hotels are underscoring their compliance with the country’s heavy internet restrictions or making alterations in the kind of internet they make available, according to several hotel chains Quartz contacted.
Earlier this month, according to a photo of a notice at the Waldorf Astoria Beijing, the hotel said it would stop providing VPN service to its guests as of July 14. It also reminded guests that the use of Facebook and YouTube is forbidden in China. Opened in early 2014, the hotel is located in Beijing’s central tourism area, near the Ming-era Forbidden City complex. In a phone interview with Quartz, the hotel’s guest center confirmed the notice had been posted, but didn’t provide other details. A spokesman from Hilton Worldwide group, which Waldorf Astoria Beijing is a part of, also confirmed the notice.
In January, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, China’s top internet regulation body, published a notice (link in Chinese) calling for the use of VPN services to be limited to business use within a company. In June, the long-gestating Cybersecurity Law went into effect, which regulates how companies can store and move data generated in China. Since then, popular VPN services have been shutting down. GreenVPN, for example, said in a notice on June 22 that it had to close down receiving orders from authorities (link in Chinese).
Other international hotels operating in China also appear to be shying away from providing the services–while others deny they have ever provided them.
The Park Hyatt Shanghai said it started providing VPN services in June 2013, according to a South China Morning Post report that year. However, a hotel spokeswoman said it had ceased providing the service four years ago, without elaborating. Parent company Hyatt Hotels Corp. did not respond to a comment request from Quartz.
The JW Marriott Hotel Chengdu hotel, which opened in October, had provided VPN service, according to the British publication the Telegraph. But the hotel ceased the service “given the circumstance in China,” according to the hotel’s spokeswoman, adding that she wasn’t aware of the specific timeline of the VPN shutdown.
“We understand that from time to time specific rules on internet access in China may change,” said a spokeswoman from the parent company Marriott International’s Asia-Pacific office. “It has been our policy to comply with and we fully intend to comply with the PRC (People’s Republic of China) legal requirements on internet access as they are updated.”
So what kind of internet access should travelers who don’t have VPN accounts expect? One Shanghai-based luxury hotel told Quartz that it is offering something called “internet enhancement,” tailor-made access to selected sites beyond the Great Firewall. The source said the service would only be provided to foreign passport holders and “won’t satisfy customers’ requests to use Facebook or YouTube, but only Google.” Which exact sites a guest has access to would depend on nationality. It wasn’t clear how internet would be configured for these travelers, or whether they would have to provide the hotel with a list of sites they wish to use.
Travelers’ best bet is personal VPN subscriptions—although they must set these up before they travel, one website warns, since the websites of some VPN companies are also blocked in China.
The crackdown comes amid an already-worrying business environment (paywall) for foreign companies in China. Nearly 80% of the 500 American companies operating in China said that the country’s web filters had negative impact on business, according to a 2016 survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, a non-profit business advocacy body, roughly on par with that of 2015.
European and domestic companies in China, which rely on access to business-critical information from abroad, which often requires a VPN, are affected, says Lance Noble, manager for policy and communications for the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. More than 20% of the 500 surveyed companies said that China’s internet restrictions cost them 10% or more of their annual revenue in China, according to the group’s Business Confidence Survey published in May.
“Anyone who does business in China has to always be mindful that China puts politics over money,” Dan Harries, a China legal specialist and founder of the Seattle-based law firm Harris Bricken, told Quartz, “It may make economic sense for China to open up the internet, but politically, it believes it must close it even further, and so it has and will likely continue doing so.”
The piece has been updated with response from Marriott International’s Asia-Pacific office on July 25.