Saturday, July 14, 2007

Starbuck closes controversial outlet inside the Forbidden City

Pallavi Aiyar

Beijing: After a seven-year run dogged with controversy, an outlet of the American coffee-shop chain, Starbucks, located inside Beijing’s Forbidden City has closed its doors. The move comes after an intensive Internet campaign started by a State TV anchor last year accused the coffee-shop of “trampling” on Chinese culture and hurting the image of the historical monument.

The Forbidden City is a former imperial palace that was home to 24 emperors before the end of imperial rule in 1911. It is also China’s top tourist attraction, drawing some 7 million visitors a year. Located bang opposite Tiananmen Square, the palace has long formed the symbolic heart of the country.

The Starbucks outlet opened inside the Forbidden City, back in 2000 at the invitation of the palace managers who were looking for ways to raise the money needed to maintain the 178-acre complex of villas and gardens.

Commercial Ventures

Starbucks was not the only commercial outlet to operate within the palace grounds where a range of bookstores, souvenir shops, snack bars and Chinese-style teahouses are located.

From the very beginning, there were some critics in China who felt that the presence of the American franchise inside the palace was jarring and culturally inappropriate. Thus, shortly after opening, Starbucks had agreed to lower its profile by removing an exterior sign.

Since the beginning of this year, the Internet campaign calling for the outlet’s closure had gathered strength, hogging the headlines in domestic media and garnering the support of some half a million people. The coffee-shop closed on Friday although the announcement was made public only on Saturday. “[W]e have respectfully decided to end our lease agreement,” Wang Jinlong, president of Starbucks Greater China, said in a written statement: “We fully respect the decision of Forbidden City to transition to a new mode of concessions service to its museum visitors.”