Hot Spots

Between Beijing landing the 2008 Summer Olympics, Shanghai’s emergence as a global trade center and all the press surrounding the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, China is a high-profile destination among U.S. travelers and wholesalers. In a recent U.S. Tour Operators Association survey of its members, China ranked sixth among all international destinations, rubbing elbows with such ever-popular destinations as Australia, Mexico and up-and-comer Thailand.

By: David Peterkofsky

Between Beijing landing the 2008 Summer Olympics, Shanghai’s emergence as a global trade center and all the press surrounding the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, China is a high-profile destination among U.S. travelers and wholesalers. In a recent U.S. Tour Operators Association survey of its members, China ranked sixth among all international destinations, rubbing elbows with such ever-popular destinations as Australia, Mexico and up-and-comer Thailand.

Numbers from the China National Tourism Office bear out the country’s popularity among Americans. In 2001 a year in which overseas travel from the United States almost stopped in the last four months nearly 950,000 American travelers visited China, an increase of almost 6% over the total in 2000. This year, the United States is on pace to send more than 1 million visitors to China for the first time.

“China in the past couple of years has been a super-hot destination of choice for travelers,” said Evan Chan, director of Ritz Tours’ China division. The events of last Sept. 11 and the looming specter of war with Iraq have both dampened Americans’ enthusiasm for travel across the Atlantic and benefited China, he added.

So with all those Americans heading to China, what popular attractions and activities should agents suggest to their clients? TravelAge West posed that question to four wholesalers that specialize in China, and their wide-ranging responses varied from the obvious ones to those off the beaten path.

The River and the Dam

Tour operators also appear in agreement about the popularity of itineraries with sailings on the changing Yangtze River.

Word has spread among travelers about the imminent changes along China’s fabled waterway next month, ships traveling on the Yangtze will sail through temporary locks. The third phase of construction will begin next summer, at which point water will rise approximately 15 feet a day, flooding the low-lying areas along the river. Eventually, a permanent lock will be in operation. The entire project will be completed in 2009.

“We have found the hottest destination of choice to be the Yangtze,” said Ritz Tours’ Chan. “With stage three of the Three Gorges Dam project beginning in November, Americans have been flocking to China to see the Three Gorges before it becomes submerged.”

But Chan, like other operators who offer Yangtze trips, emphasized that just because work on the river will soon include the flooding of some areas along the river, changing it forever, that process won’t happen overnight.

“Stage three of the dam project will take six years to complete,” he said. “In each of those years the water level shall be slowly raised. Therefore, prospective travelers who wish to visit the Three Gorges can still do so within the next couple of years.”

Ritz uses Victoria Cruises for the Yangtze portion of its China itineraries, and trips range from the three- or four-day sailings between Chongqing and Wuhan (between which lie the Three Gorges) to longer cruises between Nanjing and Chongqing. Each itinerary features a stopover at the site of the Three Gorges Dam, and popular shore excursions go to the cities of Fengdu (the “city of ghosts,” known in the ancient Han dynasty as the gateway to the underworld) and Wanxian (known for its many markets and artisans), as well as Mount Jiuhuashan, with its Buddhist temples.

The ‘Big Three’ Cities

Comprising one-third of what Ritz Tours’ Chan calls “the big three,” Shanghai along with Beijing and Xian is featured in all 16 of Ritz’s China and Asia itineraries for 2003 and 2004.

Valerie Wade, sales executive with San Francisco-based Euroasia Travel, said Shanghai has always been a very popular destination, but the ongoing growth of this city of 13 million appears to have sparked an increase in its popularity among U.S. visitors.

Wade singled out two hotels that are big hits with Euroasia clients. One is the Grand Hyatt Hotel, on the rapidly developing Pudong side of the city and occupying the upper floors of China’s tallest skyscraper.

“Even if guests can’t afford to stay the night, the Cloud 9 bar on the 87th floor is a must visit,” Wade said.

On the other end of the age spectrum, but equally popular, is the waterfront Peace Hotel, located on the Bund at the entrance to Shanghai’s ever-popular Nanjing Road shopping district. It’s one of the oldest properties in the city, and its jazz concerts in the hotel bar are legendary.

But just touring the Great Wall or shopping on Nanjing Road isn’t always enough these days for travelers to the “big three,” according to Christina Liadis, tour operations manager at China Travel Service.

“There is a definite shift toward more in-depth cultural experiences and people-to-people interaction,” Liadis said. “One of our most popular tours,” Liadis said, “is our Local Flavors tour in which the traveler has the opportunity to visit well-known historical attractions as well as explore ancient lanes in the old part of Beijing, meet the locals as they practice Tai Chi in the park, visit gardens and ancient water towns in the Grand Canal area and taste many different regional cuisines.”

The Real Shangri-La

At New York-based Pacific Holidays, interest has been strong in Rediscovering Shangri-La, an itinerary launched in 2000 that takes travelers to Yunnan Province, near Tibet in the southwest corner of China.

“A couple of other tour operators have basically copied our itinerary and put it in their brochure,” said Jerry Chang, president of Pacific Holidays. “But that means something is interesting and people want to do it.” Chang was inspired to add the itinerary, priced from $2,295 per person, double, land only, after reading James Hilton’s classic novel “Lost Horizon.” He’s clearly not the only one with great interest in the region. So many visitors have come to Zhongdian, the town that’s home to the legendary monastery, that the town is often referred to as “Shangri-La.”

Other regional highlights of the Rediscovering Shangri-La itinerary include the unique geological formations of the Stone Forest, a visit to a Tibetan home in a mountain village and a tour of the ancient city of Lijiang, with its cobbled streets, canals and Jade Peak monastery. China Travel Service also features many of these attractions in its 10-day In Search of Shangri-La tour.

Martial Arts and Ale

Wade of Euroasia Travel singled out two sites within China that frequently find their way onto the itineraries her company assembles for affinity groups and for FIT clients. One is Shaolin Si, a monastery near Zhengzhou in Henan Province that’s considered to be the birthplace of the martial arts.

“Shaolin Si is the place where martial arts began in China, as a form of distraction for Buddhist monks from their long hours of meditation,” Wade said. The monastery today operates as a martial arts school and is frequently used for performances and competitions.

Wade suggested that agents point their beer-aficionado clients in the direction of seaside Qingdao, on the Jiaodong Peninsula by the Yellow Sea. Qingdao’s main attraction is Shilaoren National Holiday Resort, designated as a state resort by the Chinese government a decade ago. One of the most popular sites within the resort area is the International Beer City, where the largest beer festival in Asia takes place every August.

For More Information

Ritz Tours: 800-900-2446; www.ritztours.com

Pacific Holidays: 800-355-8025; www.pacificholidaysinc.com

China Travel Service: 800-899-8618; www.chinatravelservice.com

Euroasia Travel: 800-883-6657; www.euroasiatravel.com.

>