Beyond the Myths

Travel to China is not what is used to be

By: David Swanson

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Many U.S. travelers and even agents have outdated views of the country’s tourist infrastructure.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.

Among them:

Myth: China is for the wealthy, over 60, travel-by-motorcoach set.

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 visitors.

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 to tourism.

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 magnificent Wall.

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 Square.”

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.