Travel China: The great call of China

The collapse of the south-east Asian economy is bad news for Chinese tourism but means there are some great deals available for Westerners.
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FOR THREE days towards the end of last year, the Shanghai Exhibition Centre exuded confidence and colour. It had become home to the first serious travel trade market held in China for more than 10 years. The tour operators, who came from all over the world, were faced with a choice of hundreds of local agents and tourist boards, each vying for business and eager to promote a specific town or province - the choice on offer was bewildering.

No longer do you simply take a Yangtze cruise; 10 companies compete in schedules, standards and price. No longer are you grateful to get a seat on an aircraft; between Shanghai and Peking, for instance, there are now five competing airlines and flights every hour, with three classes on board most aircraft.

Clear marketing differences have emerged between the old tourist favourites such as Peking and Xian on the one hand and the lesser-known centres on the other. The former hope to keep visitors longer by publicising new attractions with their low admission fees and quiet locations. In Peking, for instance, tourists are encouraged to visit the house and garden of Song Qing-Ling, widow of Sun Yat-sen, and to look down on the Forbidden City from Coal Hill.

In Shanghai, while it is still possible to see the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party, tourists are now encouraged to visit the stock exchange in Pudong. Towns that Westerners traditionally ignore, such as Nanjing and Kunming, Guizhou and Shenyang, now boast their easy access and many comfortable hotels.

These places also promote the image of still being "real" China, a clear attack on the skyscrapers that dominate the Peking and Shanghai cityscapes. The rural areas use a similar line of attack; the brochures portray only a China of flowers, streams, monasteries, bicycles and one-storey family houses centred around a courtyard.

The travel industry in China always puts on a brave face under increasingly difficult trading conditions. From the round of receptions held in conjunction with the Travel Market, few outsiders would have guessed that 1999 will be the first really tough year in tourism that China has had to face.

The boom from South East Asia previously seemed never-ending, as did the newer, rising market from Russia. As a result, new hotels have been built to cater for a market that no longer exists, and European and American buyers were aware of this when they negotiated prices for their new brochures.

The brashness of the Travel Market could not disguise the empty seats on aircraft into China, the overabundance of hotel rooms throughout the country and the enormous number of taxis always available.

Many Western buyers hope to approach hoteliers during the spring following a bleak winter, both literally and metaphorically. They will then also have ammunition for renegotiating with their original partners. Similar tactics will be used with guides and transport companies.

For the prospective Western visitor, this scenario is ideal. I have just prepared a costing for a client who wanted to repeat a long individual itinerary last made in 1984. The price of pounds 2,300 is identical but the differences are great. Flights will be in modern American aircraft and not in older Russian ones, drives will be along highways and not tracks, train journeys can be measured in hours rather than days and overnight stops will be in four-star hotels and not in poorly lit lodges.

If most of 1999 will be tough for tourism in China, the People's Republic should be able to look forward to a happy 50th birthday in October. Visitors will appreciate the pageantry that is bound to accompany this great occasion, and so will come in large numbers. Some may even be willing to pay what the Chinese regard as normal hotel rates, for the privilege of being there then.

The writer is director of Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711)