Almost everyone in the travel business knows that a 400-mile
section of the world’s third-longest river is about to drown in a
reservoir. But the Yangtze River isn’t the only part of China
undergoing major development.
The country faces dynamic transitions as it speeds full-throttle
into the 21st century. Host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing is
preparing by building 400 new hotels at all-price levels. Plus,
spurred on by the introduction of three weeklong national holidays
in 2000, domestic tourism is booming 700 million Chinese explored
their own country in 2001.
Many U.S. travelers and even agents have outdated views of the
country’s tourist infrastructure. My journey to China revealed a
far more complex and developed tourism product than I ever
expected. Since then, I’ve been surprised by the perceptions and
misconceptions that Americans have about travel in China.
Myth: China is for the wealthy, over 60, travel-by-motorcoach
Reality: When China first opened its tourism in the late ’70s,
the first visitors were those who had the money, time and
inclination hence the country’s reputation for older, affluent
Today’s visitors are younger, often academics, and more are
traveling independently. Increasingly, select tour operators
accommodate coach-phobic travelers by arranging custom itineraries
that can include as little as hotel, plane tickets and airport
transfers by an English-speaking guide.
“Probably the biggest motivator is people who’ve been to Europe
and other places independently and say they don’t want to travel in
a group,” said Howard Smith, President of Chinasmith, a tour
operator that specializes in boutique travel. Smith, who has
visited China about 60 times since 1981, said the typical client
seeking an independent itinerary has already taken a basic tour and
doesn’t want to retrace his steps.
Last year, Hertz became the first global car-rental chain to
open in China, with eight outlets in Beijing, Shanghai and
Guangzhou. Chinese driver’s licenses are not readily available to
visitors, so the rentals come with a chauffeur and cost about $121
a day. “The Chinese are rapidly building their transportation
infrastructure,” said a Hertz spokesman, Richard Broome. “As car
rentals becomes more common, China will grow into the largest
car-rental market in Asia.”
Myth: Itineraries are rigid.
Reality: The bureaucracy does make some spur-of-the-moment whims
a little difficult to satisfy. For example, despite my repeated
requests to explore an off-the-beaten-track section of the Great
Wall, our group was shuttled to Badaling, the oldest portion open
It was exciting to stand where former President Richard M. Nixon
and others once posed. But the bus-loads of visitors, the noise of
the tram, the crush of vendors and “The Sound of Music” blaring out
of loudspeakers all marred the dignity and romance of the
But here and elsewhere in China, it is possible to sidestep the
crowds with the right contacts. Smith said that a standard coach
tour to Badaling can be purchased for about $15, including lunch at
a busy gift shop. Or, travelers can pay $60 to $70 for a taxi and
guide to take them to the more remote sections of the Wall.
Myth: The accommodations will be of poor quality.
Reality: Increasingly, global brands are creating a familiar
experience for Westerners visiting China. Shangri-La, St. Regis and
Four Seasons are among the five-star chains represented in Beijing
and Shanghai, each offering service and amenities comparable to the
best hotels in Hong Kong.
The striking, 88-story Hyatt Shanghai, with its award-winning
art deco design, is the tallest hotel in the world. “Most of the
hotels are staffed by people from Singapore, Hong Kong and
throughout Asia. The service standards and the amenities are
excellent,” Smith said.
Even Courtyard by Marriott and Days Inn can be found in Beijing
and Shanghai. “Nobody expects luxury at Days Inn but you have
certain amenities that you can expect, like air conditioning, color
television and direct-dial phones,” Smith said.
Myth: Sanitation is a real problem.
Reality: Restaurants that cater to foreigners in major cities
are clean and professionally managed. In smaller cities, the
restaurants at major hotels are usually reliable.
Myth: Flying in China is unsafe.
Reality: “Americans have the misconception that we use rubber
bands to wind up the engines,” said Jeff Ruffolo, spokesman for
China Southern Airlines.
The country has grounded the inferior Russian aircraft; and
improvements have been made to air-traffic control systems,
domestic air infrastructure and pilot training (which is now done
in the United States).
China Southern, the country’s largest airline, has a fleet of
122 planes, all built by Boeing or Airbus, whose average age is
less than 6 years, Ruffolo said.
Myth: You will be trailed by government agents.
Reality: Security throughout most developed areas is relatively
relaxed today, and clients who come back with tales of snooping are
probably just susceptible to romantic fantasy.
“Many Americans think China is still like 1989, during the
Tiananmen Square massacre,” Ruffolo said. “That image will change
when China hosts the Olympics and the torch is run around Tiananmen
However, a notable military presence is evident at Tiananmen
Square, in areas of local unrest, such as Tibet, and in dealings
with the outlawed Falun Gong movement.
Otherwise, the average tourist is of little interest to the
military. Actually, the tight controls that the government
maintains may be one reason that China is perceived by
well-traveled westerners to be a safe destination, post-9/11.
Myth: Once the dam is built, the Three Gorges will be gone.
Reality: In June, crews at China’s mammoth Three Gorges Dam will
complete the second part of their three-phase, 18-year construction
project , and despite war-related cancellations cruise lines are
coping with unprecedented demand to see the Three Gorges before
they are flooded.
Some shore excursions will be lost with the flooding, but Benson
Wu, vice president of Victoria Cruises, said that lines are working
with the government to develop new ones. “In 2004, we’ll have
smaller ships to take day trips up smaller streams in the Three
Gorges that were not navigable before the dam,” said Wu.
Myth: Once you’ve scaled the Great Wall and inspected the terra
cotta warriors of Xi’an, you’ve done China.
Reality: Geographically and culturally, China and its
3,000-year-old history is far more diverse than America’s. Still,
most first-time visitors just go to Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai,
somewhat like a Chinese visitor choosing to see America by visiting
its three biggest cities.
“The next area for tourism is the west,” including the ancient
trade route known as the Silk Road, said Zhu Shan Zhong, deputy
director general for the China National Tourist Administration.