Not so forbidding: China opens its doors to package operators

The tour operator that brought you the Costa Brava is venturing a touch further - 6,000 miles to the east to be precise.

Airtours is offering the first cheap and cheerful beach holidays to China.

At £800 for a two-week break, the company is urging you to visit Sanya resort on Hainan island in the South China Sea.

While upmarket operators have been offering cultural tours to the People's Republic for the well-to-do, Airtours is keen that those with shallower pockets get a chance to sample the delights of the world's most populous country.

The package envisaged by the tour operator is likely to appeal to those not yet ready for total immersion in Oriental culture. The hotel chains used by Airtours include the Sheraton, Marriott, Holiday Inn and Novotel. "International" and Chinese food will be available. However, the climate - "tropical monsoonal" - is agreeably exotic.

There are drawbacks. The flights take 15 hours with a stop-off in Bahrain and it is recommended that visitors should be vaccinated against polio, diphtheria, hepatitis A, typhoid and, for some areas, malaria. For those of a bibulous disposition, however, a glass of beer can cost as little as 70p.

The charge also includes two nights in Beijing with the opportunity to visit the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall of China, the Silk Market and Tiananmen Square. Robust political discourse is generally discouraged, particularly while on a visit to the famous square.

The Communist regime's reputation for authoritarianism, however, has not discouraged tourists. In 2004 China took over Italy's position as the world's fourth most visited country on earth. It is predicted that by 2020 it will be the most visited on earth.

The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing is expected to act as a catalyst. And so is the plan for a Walt Disney theme park in Shanghai, due for completion in 2012, although the coastal city's polluted air may deter the fastidious.

Steve Barrass, the managing director of Airtours, said the company had extended its operations in Goa, Cuba and Brazil and saw China as a logical step. He pointed out that Hainan was known as the Hawaii of the East because it was on the same latitude and had a similar climate. The company plans to operate four flights a month to the Chinese resort from Gatwick and Manchester.

It is expected that other operators will develop packages around other Chinese coastal resorts.

Peter McHugh, the chief executive of MyTravel, which owns Airtours, said it would be cautious about further expansion in the region. "It's a question of taking small steps. But Hainan has the infrastructure we need."

Tour operators with a view to the future are spreading their wings to every corner of the earth. Some are even keeping an eye on the potential for war zones. A dozen years ago only the armed forces, the intrepid and the foolish ventured to Croatia. Now the beautiful Adriatic coastline is teeming with tourists. Other parts of the old Yugoslavia are beginning to enjoy a peace dividend - although Serbia is still suffering from the murderous shadow cast by its war criminals.

According to Frances Tuke of the Association of British Travel Agents, even Pakistan could well become an attractive destination when its snow-clad mountains start to lure skiers rather than mujahedin.

How People's Republic welcomes tidy visitors

By Simon Calder

China made its first tentative, grudging steps 25 years ago to develop tourism, when independent travellers were allowed in.

Getting around ranged from fraught to impossible; hotels were poor and over-priced; and the agenda of "attractions'' revolved around the achievements of Communism.

Even the seaside was off-limits: the nearest good beach to Beijing, at Bedahei, was reserved for Party officials.

Like everything else in 21st century China, tourism is a work in progress. But today the Western visitor is welcomed on the beaches of Bedahei, in the palaces of Beijing and Xian and on the strongest, longest suit of all - the Great Wall. The world's finest frontier is so popular that a one-way system for sightseers is used in the most crowded sections - where visitors are also asked to "observe social morality and keep your own things well in order".

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