The Next Beijing?

Guangzhou is poised for rapid tourism growth in 2010

By: By Gary Bowerman


Grand Hyatt Guangzhou
12 Zhujiang West Road, Pearl River New City, Tianhe District
A contemporary hotel with a design emphasis on bamboo, stone and hard woods, the grand Hyatt opened in spring 2008 in the Pearl River New City district. Stand-out features include a 22nd-floor sky lobby, a fine-dining Cantonese restaurant, O Spa and open-plan rooms with rainforest shower, wall-hung plasma television and iPod docking stations.

Guangzhou Restaurant
2 Wenchang Nan Lu
86-20 8138-0388

The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou
3 Xing’an Lu, Pearl River New City, Tianhe District
Opened in spring 2008, this elegant luxury hotel sits beside the Guangzhou Opera House overlooking the Pearl River. Designed in classic-meets-contemporary European style, it features European and Cantonese restaurants and a signature spa. In-room facilities include Wi-Fi, iPod docking stations, rainforest showers and a large plasma television.

Shangri-La Hotel, Guangzhou
1 Huizhan Dong Lu, Haizhu District
Guangzhou’s first international five-star hotel opened in spring 2007 adjacent to the International Convention & Exhibition Center. This contemporary, 704-room property targets mainly business travelers, and features extensive meetings and conventions facilities, an outdoor swimming pool, a signature Chi spa and Cantonese, Thai and Italian fine dining.

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Guangzhou has a simple mission: attract more tourists. While a steady flow of corporate travelers visits China’s third-largest city and "factory of the world" manufacturing region, leisure travel itineraries often pass it by.

That may be about to change, however. In 2010, Guangzhou will host the 16th Asian Games and, like Beijing in 2008, it is using a major sporting event to recreate its image. An entire mini city, the New Pearl River City, is being created east of downtown and will feature scores of hotels, tourism sites and cultural venues linked by an enhanced subway system to the purpose-built Asian Games stadiums in the south.

Shamian Island // (c) Thierry
Shamian Island

Some new attractions are already taking shape. Designed like a twisting candelabra, the New Guangzhou TV Tower, which will eventually rise more than 2,000 feet to become China’s tallest building, dominates the skyline. On the opposite bank of the broad Pearl River is Zaha Hadid’s dazzlingly futuristic Guangzhou Opera House. A vast new provincial museum is also being built, and Scottish golfer Colin Montgomerie is designing a 27-hole golf course and club in the hills fringing the city.

Guangzhou’s massive urban revamp is also driving the hotel scene. Between 1983 and early 2006, no new international five-star hotels opened in Guangzhou. But since March 2007, four brands — Westin, Grand Hyatt, The Ritz-Carlton and Shangri-La — have opened state-of-the-art properties. More will follow. Park Hyatt, Four Seasons, W, Marriott, Sheraton, Sofitel and Mandarin Oriental are among the slated newcomers to arrive in the next two years.

These urban additions will help Guangzhou as it seeks to emulate the global profiles of rival Chinese cities Shanghai and Beijing. And, as in those two cities, the key to understanding Guangzhou lies in its rich history.

Formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou sits on China’s southern coast at the mouth of the Pearl River. From the mid-18th century, it became China’s shipping hub. It remained the only port permitted to trade with foreign nations until the Opium War in 1840, which opened up — and largely created — the eastern port city of Shanghai.

The Opium War also gave foreign powers greater access to Guangzhou, as it was one of the five Treaty Ports spanning China’s coast. The resulting legacy is a fine collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture.

The best place to start exploring is Shamian Island. Created in 1862 as a British and French Concession, Shamian was the foreign seat of power in southern China. Surrounded by canals and shrouded in tropical greenery, Shamian’s picturesque streets are flanked by colonnaded and neo-classical buildings that once housed international banks, hotels, theaters and consulates. If not for the rich Cantonese dialect of workers restoring some of these fine structures, it would be hard to believe this is actually China.

To leave Shamian, clients must cross one of its neat iron bridges and head for the Pearl River. Here, the old Canton Bund (Yanjiang Xi Lu) is lined with early 20th-century architectural treasures, notably the stone-fronted old post office (now a museum), the clock-towered Customs House and the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hospital.

From here, clients can either cross onto the riverside and catch a cruise boat along the magnificent Pearl River, or delay this until evening to enjoy the night views. The latter is recommended, so they can, instead, take a cab to the junction of Yide Lu and Laodong.

Rising in front of Yide Lu and Laodong are twin gothic spires attached to the Catholic Church of the Holy Heart. Modeled after Notre Dame and completed in 1888, this fine church was financed by the Chinese government after the Opium War and is the largest of its kind in China. It’s important to note the words "Rome" and "Jerusalem" that are engraved on the entrance stones, and the vaulted roof and colorful glass windows inside.

Another cab ride delivers clients to the bustling Jade Market where a labyrinth of shophouses and stalls sell carved semi-precious stones in every shade of green imaginable. An adjacent, sprawling antiques market offers ceramic carvings, Mao Zedong statues, calligraphy paintings, and coins. Remind clients to barter vigorously — it shows vendors interest in their goods.

Local Cantonese cuisine is widely revered as the most refined and delicate in China.
An evening dinner at the Guangzhou Restaurant is a quintessential Cantonese experience. This elaborate marble-and-gilt eatery was established in 1935, and serves local specialties like roast goose, double-boiled soups and abalone.