A billion Chinese wake up to the joys of tourism

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The Independent Online
XU GUOHUA has a dilemma. He can opt for the 12-day "Scenic Spots of Australia" package tour for 22,000 yuan (pounds 1,600), but that means seeing only one country; so better, perhaps, for his first holiday abroad, to take the 11 days in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, at 9,800 yuan.

The 38-year-old employee of a state advertising company finally decides to take advantage of the currency turmoil in South-East Asia. "This year I've got the money to go, and it's cheap. The Chinese currency is strong," says Mr Xu, as he clutches his visa application forms and rushes out of the China International Travel Service (Cits) office to get back to work.

Summer is here and a billion potential Chinese tourists are getting itchy feet. More mainlanders are going abroad on holiday than ever before. Those staying in China are packing their suitcases and heading in ever-growing numbers for the country's "scenic spots". Gone are the days when China's state employees all trooped out with their work colleagues for a week at the danwei (work unit) holiday rest-home. Some still go to the seaside, such as the Beidaihe beach that the Politburo love to visit, north-east of Peking. But the mainland tourist now has wider horizons, too. From the famed Dunhuang Buddhist cave paintings in Western China to the mist- topped Huang Shan mountain in the East, raucous tour groups all over China are just beginning their Long March.

In some respects, it is still tourism "with Chinese characteristics". Officially, there are just 67 government-endorsed travel agencies which can organise foreign tourism for mainland Chinese. A year ago, the government issued the "Provisional Regulations on the Management of Outbound Travel by Chinese Citizens at Their Own Expense". According to this edict, tourists must travel only in groups, pay in advance, and "for security" can only go to "approved" destinations. Those are currently Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia and Hong Kong. The package provides a one-time-use passport and a group visa.

In practice, the state-owned travel office offers what are laughingly described as "under-the-table" holidays - package trips to Europe and even America. These are only on offer to people who already have individual passports, but there is still a flourishing market. There is "American Wander" taking in the US, including Hawaii, for 39,000 yuan (pounds 2,900). Or the 16-day whistle-stop "Classic European Journey" through Germany, France, Monaco, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and the Vatican.

Many itineraries leave little time for the Chinese tourist to pause for breath. Some state employees still get only a one or two weeks' holiday a year, aside from public holidays. In the words of one travel official: "They are quick trips, with no free days. It is non-stop, the only free time is after 10pm."

In recent years, package tours have come within the budget of many Chinese. "Any kind of person can go to South-east Asia now," says Zhuang Baoping of the Cits. "It is very cheap, maybe cheaper than travelling within China." Chinese tourists can take a five-day trip to Thailand for just pounds 380, including flights, hotel and food. "Chinese people shop a lot. The overseas travel agents get commission on the shopping, so they offer us a low price," explains Mr Zhuang.

China's strong currency makes foreign travel tempting. But domestic tourism is really booming. Revenues jumped last year to pounds 18bn, more than twice what China earned from visiting foreigners. This year, with the volume of tourists from South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia plummeting, the domestic travel market is trying even harder to come up with new packages to tempt home-grown customers.

The sheer size of China's population means that popular places tend to be over-run. West Lake in Hangzhou city, for example, last year received more than 12 million domestic tourists.

Zhang Liying, 32, an employee at a state cotton trading company, went on a package tour to Thailand last year but has opted for the coastal city of Yantai this year. This is the first time she has arranged her own holiday in China. "I actually prefer to go with the work unit. It is publicly funded, and I like to go with my colleagues," she said. China's new economic reforms mean that these state-funded holidays are no longer easy to come by.

Peking, of course, is one of the major tourist draws. At this time of year, Tiananmen Square is overwhelmed by Chinese tour groups - nearly all of whom visit the mausoleum of Chairman Mao.

Yang Qi, his wife, her six sisters, and their five children have just arrived in Peking from the north-east city of Harbin on the start of a six-week tour of China. Mr Yang said: "Before 1993, we all went on holiday with our work units, but we prefer to go as a family because we can just do things by ourselves."

The adults have all been to Peking several times, but their first stop is still Tiananmen Square. For 10-year-old Xiao Yang it is his de rigueur introduction to Mao. "Very good," he said of the waxy remains, "but I didn't see clearly."