The boom in tourism to and within China is quite a recent phenomenon. China is now among the leading international tourist destinations and demand for domestic tourism is rapidly increasing.
The Emergence of Chinese Tourism
The development of domestic tourism is variously reported to have first appeared on the central government’s agenda in a speech by Secretary-General Hu Yaobang in 1985 or by Prime Minister Li Peng in 1991.
In any case, although the National Tourism Administration created a domestic travel department in 1985, the first high-level document on domestic tourism development was a plan approved by the State Council in 1993.
The Great Wall
By the late 1990s, thanks to a combination of growing incomes and a series of new policies, it became a mass phenomenon.
After the introduction of the five-day workweek in 1995, the National Tourism Administration declared 1996 the Year of Leisure and Vacation as part of the government’s “leisure culture campaign”, and, in 1997, it made developing domestic tourism a priority in its policy for the first time.
Finally, in 1998, when general domestic consumption slackened and threatened economic growth, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist party decided to promote tourism as a remedy.
To facilitate it, the government in 1999 raised the number of holidays from eight to ten days, creating three weeks off: one of each around the 1 October and 1 May state holidays and the traditional lunar Spring Festival.
Additionally, private companies often provide their employees with another week of collective holidays, which, if the company is not very large, they will frequently spend travelling together. The holiday periods, which came to be known as “golden weeks”, became times for the urban consumer class to travel.
All of a sudden, tourism gained prominence as a lifestyle attribute of the higher-income urban population and began spreading to an increasingly large part of Chinese society.
China is still far from being a “leisure society” –one in which expectations of leisure shape definitions of work- and the Westerner’s familiar complaint, “I really need a holiday!” would sound strange in a country where there is little conceptual separation between working time and leisure time and little institutionalization of times when one should not work.
But the concept of holiday or vacation (dujia) has established itself strongly enough in China’s consumer culture that younger people have taken to travelling even during the Spring Festival, a time traditionally spent with relatives in one’s ancestral village.
The Forbidden City
It is important to note that this change took place with the active (both administrative and “pedagogical’) participation of the state. While the crucial 1998 decision to promote tourism was justified in terms of economic development, it coincided with the appearance of the term “leisure culture” (xiuxian wenhua) in the government’s “civilization campaigns” as one attributes of the “modern and civilized citizen/burgher” (shimin).
Unlike the West, where hotels nights are the most common tourism indicator, in China tourism authorities use ticket-sales data from tourist sites or “scenic spots”, recognized and classified by the state, to gauge the volume of domestic tourism.
As far as the state and the tourism business are concerned, the map of China consists of a network of scenic spots ranging from imperial palaces and revolutionary memorials to nature reserves. Scenic spots even have an association: the Scenic Spots Association of China (Zhongguo Fengjing Mingshengqu Xiehui).
By contrast, domestic travel to other locations, or travel that does not engage with these state-sanctioned sites, falls outside tourism statistics. Thus, tourism in China is understood by its managers as the consumption of bounded and controlled zones.
The rise of Commercial International Tourism
China’s international tourism as a whole came into being in the late 1970s when the country began to open its “door”. International tourist activities in Guilin and Suzhou took place much earlier.
Even in the 1950s and 1960s, Guilin and Suzhou were among the few destinations in China which received international “guests” from other socialist countries. Around the mid-1970s international tourism began to take its shape in these two places.
However, a large part of the provision of travel services to international tourists in the early years was non-commercial in nature. Apart from a small number of ‘pioneer” international tourists, a large part of early visitors were not tourists in the strict sense.
In fact, they were “guests” of high-level governments including the central government. By the late 1970s, more than 50 large-size foreign delegations consisting of government leaders, numerous diplomats, prominent figures and the like had already visited Guilin.
The Li River in Guilin
At the local level, such travel services were usually arranged by the so-called waiban, or “Offices of Foreign Affairs”. Receiving such international “guests” was a top-down political task in the pre-reform period.
Nevertheless, the early efforts of Guilin and Suzhou in receiving numerous foreign guests turned out to be a great payoff for the later-on development of international tourism in one important respect. That is, such frequent visits of foreign delegations from many parts of the world had in effect made Guilin and Suzhou worldwide famous within a short period of time.
Obviously, this is a favourable factor for the rise of modern international tourism in Guilin and Suzhou since the late 1970.
In the late 1970s, following the opening up of China to the outside world, there were only a restricted number of regions and cities open to foreign visitors. This was slow to change, but in the 1990s, the situation altered with most cities and regions opening up for foreign visitors.
However, the Eastern coastal areas and particularly the coastal cities remain the most popular destinations for tourists, especially foreign tourists, and much has still to be done to attract visitors to other parts of China. An expanding tourism infrastructure has seen city breaks to Shanghai and Beijing becoming more popular.
China offers visitors what many consider to be some of the world’s great tourism experiences and, it is traditionally, a once in a lifetime holiday for many international visitors with tours taking in the most famous sights of the Golden Triangle of Beijing, with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, the 600-year-old Terracotta Army at Xian and fashionable Shanghai.
Chinese cultural heritage tourism is currently the main attraction for foreign visitors and has been argued to be a priority in international tourism product development.
With the active involvement of local governments, different tourism concepts were launched to promote tourism in different regions.
Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan Province
Natural attractions include the Three Gorges cruise on the Yangtze River, the limestone cliffs of Guilin in the South and Kunming City of Eternal Spring, as well as the indigenous people in Yunnan province. The world’s largest Buddha is at Leshan.
More adventurous attractions include, following the Silk Road bordering the countries of Central Asia, the Gobi desert and the steppes of Inner Mongolia and Tibet. The diverse natural environments of China’s untapped regions offer tremendous market potential, both for the domestic and international market.
Other tourism potential exists related to cruise tourism and to theme/amusement parks.
While most visitors to China come to see the sights, it also has beaches and there are resorts on tropical Hainan Island, which has been referred to as “the Chinese Hawaii”. Many Asian visitors also come for cheap shopping in the major cities and for the Chinese regional cuisine.
Other new forms of tourism product have emerged related to, for example, industrial tourism, folk tourism, eco-tourism, tourism festivals and events, and on sporting tourism including white water rafting, skiing, climbing and golf. Many of these have been attractive to the domestic tourism market and they also have generated interest from overseas market.
For instance, golf is a major sporting activity in China and growth has been significant in recent years with more courses, clubs and players. China has the largest golf course in the world. During the last decade, China has become one of the world’s most attractive golf destinations.