Tourists learn to make ciba, a traditional form of glutinous rice cake, during a Chinese snack food festival in Shanghai in November. [Photo by Zhou Dongchao/China Daily]
China’s growing global importance and economic strength mean groups of Chinese visitors are now commonplace at the world’s great tourist destinations.
However, the feeling has not been reciprocated. The number of foreign tourists visiting China has been in decline for several years, prompting the authorities to consider new measures to attract them, including better standards of service, a raft of tax breaks and simplified visa requirements.
Although there were signs of a rebound last year, the new measures failed to attract as many foreign visitors as expected, with many saying that along with the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Army, they want to see a more civilized, less polluted and less commercialized China.
Two foreign tourists pose for a “selfie” at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in October. [Photo by Zou Weilin/China Daily]
In 2010, Seth Griffin made his most memorable trip within China. Having chosen his destination at random, Griffin left Chongqing in the company of a Chinese traveler he met in a hostel and traveled to Xi’an, Shaanxi province, for a three-day visit.
It was winter and the city was in the grip of frost. The 27-year-old from Juneau, Alaska, recalled that in the mornings steam from the breakfast stalls swirled in the air and everyone he met tried to keep warm by wrapping their frozen hands around bowls of hot soy milk.
The trip was a simple but interesting one, and it allowed Griffin to experience “authentic China”. He wandered around the city, saw the famous defensive walls, visited the ancient drum tower, the local museum and the Terracotta Army, of course.
“The most interesting Chinese cities are the ones that make travelers feel like they are experiencing a new and different place. For me, Xi’an was one of those cities,” said Griffin, speaking on the phone from Taiwan, where he works as a freelance translator. “So were Chongqing, Xiamen, and a handful of smaller towns and cities across the country.”
An open door
Griffin was one of many foreign tourists attracted by China’s long history and stunning landscapes, factors that helped the domestic tourism industry “make its fortune” after the implementation of the reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s.
China’s modern tourism sector is a far cry from the days of the 1950s and ‘60s, when the sector was focused on providing services for overseas visitors. For a long time, inbound tourism was the largest part of the tourism sector in China. In 1995 alone, foreign visits surpassed 5.88 million.
In the 1990s, a greater number of Chinese began to travel, not only internally, but also internationally. The country gradually became the world’s largest market for domestic and outbound tourism, and the fourth-largest for inbound tourism. Last year, the number of outbound tourists was 120 million, more than one-third the population of the United States.
However, the numbers are deceptive and in recent years, China has become less attractive to visitors from overseas. While outbound tourism is flourishing, inbound tourism has fallen short of the goals set in the nation’s 12th Five-Year-Plan (2011-2015).
From 2004, the number of inbound tourists grew rapidly, albeit with some fluctuations, to reach a high point in 2012, when more than 27 million foreigners visited the country. After that, the number stagnated at about 26 million. Last year, 23.85 million visitors arrived between January and November.
If visits by residents of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan are taken into account, the number of overseas visitors in the three years following 2011 recorded consecutive declines of as much as 2.51 percent.
In the first 11 months of last year, the number of overseas visitors grew by 4.4 percent year-on-year, and a recent report by the China Tourism Academy concluded that the downward trend has been contained, if not reversed.
However, compared with other countries, the situation is not encouraging. In 2014, inbound tourism to Japan rose 29.4 percent and South Korea saw a rise of 17 percent, according to the UN World Tourism Organization.
Griffin said he enjoys his trips around China, but several factors may prompt potential visitors to reconsider. “First of all, so many places suffer from a lot of pollution of all kinds－air, water and so on－and a lot of local people, especially in the countryside, make things worse by throwing garbage in the streets, expectorating and spitting seeds everywhere,” he said.
Another issue is the way tourist destinations have been developed. “A lot of them aren’t enjoyable to visit anymore, because they have lost their sense of authenticity. The buildings have been rebuilt in a way that makes the experience feel too ‘packaged’,” he said.
“Most Western tourists like to feel as though they’re traveling to unique places that have a connection with something bigger. For some people, that ‘bigger thing’ is history, for others it might be the natural scenery or adventure. In China, all those things are obscured by tourism development zones that make the experience feel like a visit to a shopping mall. So travelers can’t feel like they have connected to something bigger than themselves.”
Moreover, people who have never visited China may be reluctant to plan trips because of the distance, cost, the language barrier, visas and even the “bad reputation of Chinese people”.
Writing on a social networking platform, Marina Coelho, 35, from Pelotas in southern Brazil, said: “I would go, but it’s very low on my list of priorities. Too far, too expensive, and there are language issues.”
Roberta Manaa, from Rio de Janeiro, commented on the distance, pollution and a number of incidents that have made headlines across the world, such as the Chinese teenager who defaced a 3,500-year-old temple in Egypt: “If they behave so badly as tourists, one can only imagine how they are at home.”
The domestic tourism industry is now facing a double whammy, because many Chinese are also complaining that traveling around the country is not worth the money, and they run the risk of being overcharged and cheated at tourist destinations.
During the National Day holiday in October, a tourist in Qingdao, Shandong province, was forced to pay 1,520 yuan ($233) after ordering a dish of prawns. When they made the order, the customer was told that the price was 38 yuan per dish, but that was later changed to 38 yuan per prawn. Despite complaining to the police, the tourist still had to pay the inflated bill.
Shen Yiren, a market manager for an Internet company, has already planned a series of overseas trips. He said the standards offered by internal tourist venues are unacceptably low.
“Too many people are packed into fake scenic spots that offer bad, overpriced food, not to mention all the traps－such as taxi drivers taking long detours to charge you more and tour guides taking you to buy fake souvenirs, just to get kickbacks. It’s awful,” said the 29-year-old resident of Shenzhen, Guangdong province. “In the past, it was expensive to visit foreign countries, but now a trip to Thailand costs no more than a trip to Yunnan province. Why bother?”
Wang Yanyong, director of the Tourism Development and Planning Research Center at Beijing Jiaotong University, said low levels of service could prompt Chinese tourists to look elsewhere: “Nowadays, the cost of traveling overseas is very low. Many tourists have experienced good service overseas and they will not tolerate poor service at home.”
Dai Bin, director of the China Tourism Academy, a think tank at the China National Tourism Administration, said he is optimistic about the development of inbound tourism over the next five years because the market is becoming more mature, and a larger number of big players would provide better tourism products to meet the demands of a greater number of “picky customers”.
However, he called for more policies to stimulate the market, especially a long-term, national-level strategy to coordinate various sectors, including aviation, visas and finance, and to promote China’s image as a tourism destination.
“The first thing to consider is how to make it much easier and friendlier for foreigners to visit us. This means simplified visa application procedures, more airline connections and we must make it more convenient for tourists to spend money in China,” he said.
“The second is how to reintroduce China to the rest of the world, how to use their own languages to tell the Chinese story,” he added. “In the past, it was all about us－just telling people about the country’s natural beauty and long history－but visiting China is not just about seeing ancient sites. Many foreign visitors want to experience the modern side of China.”
Wang Qing, a senior official with the Beijing Tourism Development Commission, said the next move will be to extend the current 72-hour visa-free transit policy－under which visitors with ongoing travel documents are allowed to stay in major cities for three days without having to apply for a visa－to 144 hours and to link the current 18 points of entry to form an integrated transit area.
“The main reasons behind the sluggish development (of inbound tourism) are pollution, the language barrier and a lack of price competitiveness as a result of the exchange rate. However, we can’t blame everything on those factors, so we also need to consider how to improve the experience for all our visitors,” Wang said.
Belt and Road could boost visitor numbers
The Belt and Road Initiative will bring many opportunities for China’s struggling inbound tourism sector, according to experts.
Over the past few years, outbound tourism has flourished but China has struggled to stimulate inbound tourism. As a result, the government has adopted several measures designed to boost the sector, including easing visa restrictions and offering tax refunds for overseas shoppers. For example, a 144-hour visa-free entry policy has been launched to allow foreign tourists who arrive in Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang to have greater convenience and flexibility during their trips.
However, tourism insiders agree that the policies have not boosted the number of inbound tourists as much as expected.
Dai Bin, head of the China Tourism Academy, said it’s not possible for one policy to change the whole game: “It’s like we have only made a breakthrough in one section, and we need more support from tourism-related industries.”
Zhang Lingyun, dean of the College of Tourism at Beijing Union University, said the inbound tourism market could rank in the global top three in the next five or six years, but only if China can take full advantage of the opportunities brought about by the initiative.
“The most-obvious opportunity provided by the Belt and Road Initiative is the chance to integrate the fragmented source market for inbound tourism,” Zhang said. “Generally speaking, inbound tourists to China come from Japan, South Korea, the United States and a few other places. If we combined several fragmented source countries, we could make a huge difference.
“For example, Germany, France and the United Kingdom account for no more than 7 percent of the inbound market, but the total market of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand is more than 10 percent. Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan could surpass 13 percent of the inbound tourism market,” he added.
Zhong Linsheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said improvements to the infrastructure could boost visitor numbers.
“The Belt and Road Initiative involves more than 4.4 billion people, accounting for 43 percent of the global population. That’s a huge tourism market,” he said. “A large part of the ($40 million) Silk Road Fund has been poured into tourism and related industries, such as the major tourist hub being built in Xinjiang. Land and air transportation will also be greatly improved in the coming years.”
However, China will still need better services and a “foreigner-friendly” environment to make it a more-attractive destination than its Asian competitors.
Jiang Yanxia, an assistant research fellow at the China Tourism Academy, said more cities should either support tax-refunds for foreign visitors or open more duty-free stores.