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Ten Years After

THE AUTUMN of 1989 was a tough time for tourism to the People's Republic of China. Over the previous decade, the Chinese had seized on the potential of attracting tourists as a source of foreign exchange. In 1979, travel of any kind in China was a trial, and packages from Britain unknown. Then CAAC (now Air China) and British Airways started flying to Peking - a tortuous route that involved stops in Rome, Bombay and Hong Kong. Fares of pounds 500 were as low as they could go, which meant that a complete holiday for pounds 599 was revolutionary, if you were prepared to discover the true meaning of Red Tape.

For a while, however, independent travellers could take advantage of ignorance about what tourists could be permitted to do. Access to Tibet and other frontier areas was possible for those prepared to hitch or take local buses. For packaged holidaymakers, life was not necessarily much fun.

Chinese tourism officials copied Intourist of the USSR, ineptly. Tourists were bussed from one dubious achievement of the Cultural Revolution to the next, and billeted in soulless tower blocks miles from anywhere; more than one grumpy traveller commented that the nearest decent Chinese restaurant was in Soho or San Francisco.

Liberal travellers may find it difficult to accept that the Tiananmen Square massacre made life much easier. After international condemnation for its appalling human rights record, the People's Republic quickly relaxed its rules, for tourists if not citizens.

Now there are frequent non-stops from Britain to the three biggest cities in China: Shanghai, Peking and Hong Kong. Post-handover, you still need no visa for the latter. Elsewhere in China, the bureaucracy no longer locks you in to a strict itinerary. The figure of pounds 599 for a basic holiday in 1990 is telling, because a millennium trip to the Chinese capital will cost you exactly the same. At any other time of the year, the price is closer to pounds 400.