“Bad air, bad service, bad facilities,” said 25-year-old Japanese tourist Kenichi Sakada, summing up his experience of Beijing.
Sakada, who spent a week in the capital last November, remembers standing just outside Tiananmen Gate and not being able to make out the features on the large portrait of Chairman Mao because of the egregious smog. Disenchanted, he turned to leave – but realized he had no idea where he was supposed to go.
“The street signs on the side of the street were rather vague,” recalls Sakada. “And I didn’t speak any Chinese besides nihao [hello], xiexie [thank-you] and zaijian [goodbye].”
Sakada tried to get help from passers-by, but he found that no one spoke English or Japanese. When he eventually made his way back to his hotel, he asked a friend in Japan to hire a private local tour guide for him, at the cost of 4,000 yuan ($654.64) a week. Sakada, who can list the US, Spain, France, Kenya and Russia among the places he has visited, said he found his time in China to be disappointing.
“I met a lot of Westerners during my travels,” Sakada said. “We all thought China would be a perfect tourist destination before actually going there.”
According to this year’s Annual Report on China Inbound Tourism published by the China Tourism Academy, tourism to China has steadily declined since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, with the drop-off worsening in the past three years. Although last year saw around 129 million foreigners visit China, only 10.12 million came for tourism and leisure – a drop-off of 1.51 million, or 13 percent, compared to 2012.
The report went on to cite China’s air pollution as the major factor for the declining numbers of tourists, a view that was expounded upon by tourism research fellow Liu Simin from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in a Xinhua News Agency article. “Potential tourists to China have been known to cancel their trips when they see the warnings about the air pollution,” said Liu.
“Westerners traveling from afar often plan their trips several months ahead of time, so not only are they frustrated and disappointed, but it also costs them money to cancel the trip.”
Ye Qing, 32, has been working as a private tour guide in Beijing since 2004. Prior to branching out on her own, she had been employed by a small tourism agency for more than a year, during the period when inbound tourism to China was beginning to flourish. In 2002, about 97.91 million foreigners entered China, an increase of nearly 10 percent over the previous year.
“When I was working at the small tourism agency, we never needed to worry about not having enough customers,” said Ye. “Almost every day, I would have to show curious foreigners from all over the world around Beijing. We made a lot of money.”
After resigning from the agency, Ye offered her services as a private tour guide on foreign websites like Facebook and Twitter, and made a living through good word-of-mouth. She said that the good times lasted until 2008.
“Then we entered the downturn, which has lasted very, very long,” she said.
Li Ping, manager of the inbound tourism department at Beijing Tianping International Travel Service, said that inbound tourism these days only accounts for 5 to 10 percent of the company’s business.
“Since 2012, we’ve been struggling,” said Li. “We didn’t have a single foreign customer during this year’s golden week [China’s National Day holidays].”
To deal with the decline in inbound tourism, Li said her company is focusing on outbound tourism. Due to China’s rapid economic development and the rising value of the Chinese yuan, said Li, more and more Chinese people were interested in traveling abroad.
“Who cares about bringing in foreigners? It is easier to make a fortune from Chinese people here.”
Reasons for downturn
In addition to China’s air pollution deterring foreign tourists, reasons that have been suggested for the decline in inbound tourism include poor infrastructure and a failure to deliver the kind of tourism experience that foreigners are looking for.
“The concept of tourism is rather different between most foreigners and Chinese,” said Ye.
Unlike Chinese tourists abroad who prefer to travel in large tour groups, said Ye, foreigners prefer to “travel independently,” and to have “flexibility during their travels.” In a report published by the World Economic Forum, out of 144 countries and regions, China ranked No.101 in “tourism infrastructure” and No.129 in “affinity for travel and tourism,” despite scoring highly in “cultural resources” (No.15) and “natural resources” (No.5).
“[Traveling] in Europe is extremely boring, but it’s convenient in terms of guidance, transportation and the quality of facilities,” said 32-year-old Beijing-based Romanian architect Alex Damboianu.
Damboianu has traveled through a number of Chinese cities including Chongqing, Shanghai, Qingdao in Shandong Province and Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
“In China, the places are more interesting, but you have to crawl through huge amounts of garbage, and deal with smalltime scams from locals who think that all foreigners are rich.”
Wu Songping, a private tour guide with more than 10 years’ experience, admitted that both the infrastructure for tourism and the approach to looking after tourists in China has to change.
“We used to think foreigners were rich and silly, and could easily be seduced into spending lots of money,” said Wu. “This attitude is one of the main reasons that more tourists are refusing to come to China.”
Wu said that governmental restrictions were partially to blame for tour agencies in China not being able to deliver the kinds of experiences that foreigners were after.
“Many foreigners want to travel on foot to places like Tibet, but discover that they’re not permitted to go there unless they have special authorization from the government,” said Wu.
In addition, Wu suggested that more needed to be done to promote the diversity of China’s cultural heritage. He noted that other Asian countries, like South Korea, had managed to successfully parlay their traditional folk festivals and rituals into tourism draws. “What grand official cultural ceremonies or events do we have to attract foreigners?” Wu asked rhetorically.
“If we had such events, we could surely lure more tourists, but we don’t have a single one. We’re just living off our past successes by always taking them to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.”
Damboianu, however, did not agree that China needed more cultural events to lure tourists. Rather, he felt that the exploitation of Chinese culture by the tourism industry was part of the problem.
“China is losing the authenticity by trying to make money using the cultural heritage,” Damboianu said. “[Travel agencies] are trying too hard to attract travelers, which removes the mystery of discovery. They’re too focused on making money, rather than taking satisfaction from showing to the world something that they are proud of from their culture.”
What is to be done
In an effort to attract more tourists, the government introduced a 72-hour visa-free transit policy for 51 countries on January 1 this year. However, according to Ye, the policy has done little to encourage more foreigners to stay.
“Most of my customers don’t even know about the policy,” said Ye. “Perhaps the government needs to do more to publicize it.”
Wu thought that more creative, customized trips were needed to reinvigorate China’s inbound tourism industry. He gave the example of personalized six-day itinerary he designed for an American family during this year’s National Day holidays. Rather than simply ticking off the major tourist spots in the city, Wu took them to little-known hutong alleys and organized activities that would allow them to better understand China’s local foods and customs. On the last day of the trip, Wu took the family to a charity-funded disabled children’s home.
“Both [the mother and father] were involved in philanthropy, and asked me if I could arrange a one-day trip for them to see a charity initiative in China,” said Wu. “I took them to disabled children’s home, where they saw the ‘real China.’ Their small daughter had a great time with the children there, although they didn’t speak the same language.”
“Tourists who come to China don’t like being stuck in queues with the thronging masses,” said Wu. “As local tour guides, we need to think more carefully about what they want instead of blindly leading them to crowded tourist sites.”