The city that's not forbidden, just avoided

Updated: 2014-05-13 07:26

By Zhang Yuchen (China Daily)

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The city that's not forbidden, just avoided
The number of foreign nationals traveling to China has declined in recent years, with air pollution one of the key causes. ZOU HONG/ CHINA DAILY 

No longer exotic

In addition to the other factors, familiarity has, to some extent, bred contempt. China is no longer as exotic a destination as it once was, and Beijing's major tourist attractions haven't really changed in recent years - 75 percent of foreign tourists visit the same few destinations: the Great Wall; the Forbidden City; the Summer Palace; the Temple of Heaven; and the Ming Tombs.

"A key problem is that previously, foreigners mainly gained their understanding of China via word of mouth, television and newspapers. The country seemed distant and it was an adventure to come here. But today, people overseas have multiple sources of information, including family and friends who have visited the country, and, most importantly, the Internet. This ancient country is no longer a mystery, and people's curiosity about China has been assuaged to some degree," Han said.

The polluted air prevalent in northern Chinese cities such as Beijing has also resulted in tourists opting to travel south, particularly to coastal areas that combine warm weather and good air quality. Some travel services provide a list of the top 10 tourist destinations predicated on the cleanliness of the air.

The move south has also been prompted by specialist destinations that target special-interest groups; for example, a number of previously restricted military areas, including the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, now are open to visitors. Tourists who demand something out of the ordinary can have their individual needs met by these emerging destinations, according to Han.

The city that's not forbidden, just avoided

Visa-free policy

In January 2013, China introduced a visa-free transit policy that benefits people from 45 countries, and has been implemented in nine cities - Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Kunming, Chongqing, Dalian, Shenyang and Xi'an - in the expectation that large numbers of travelers passing through the country's airports would take advantage of the change, said Wang Yue, deputy director of the Beijing Tourism Development Commission. Visa-free entry was expected to attract 20,000 extra visitors to Beijing during the first year of operation, but according to the Beijing General Station of Exit and Entry Frontier Inspection the number was just 14,000.

While the policy change is intended to prompt a greater number of visitors, that's unlikely to happen unless the domestic tourism industry raises its game, according to Han, who advocated the closure of a large number of small, privately owned companies that operate on a shoestring and provide poor quality services for tourists, resulting in unequal competition. He also urged the government to increase financial and policy support for tourism to emphasize the industry's importance and promote its development.

However, from the national level to local tourist bureaus, the emphasis on inbound tourism has been overshadowed by an increasing focus on outbound travel. According to a recent report compiled by the Amadeus Travel Agency and the business consultancy Oxford Economics, China will account for as much as 20 percent of all global travel by 2023.

In addition, many foreign travel companies are strengthening their efforts to attract greater numbers of Chinese visitors to a wide range of countries, and some countries and foreign cities have established agencies in China, backed by government funds.

Redressing balance

There are many ways to boost Beijing's visitor numbers, according to the experts. "As the city becomes increasingly 'global', it will have to be clean to attract the talented people required to compete with other cities worldwide in important sectors such as research and development, technology, services and tourism," Procee said.

The industry must also help to improve the quality of the urban environment and create more attractive, well-connected small-scale communities with welcoming and walkable streets backed up by an efficient public transport system, he added.

There's also plenty of room for improvements in the service sector, primarily the quality of hotels, restaurants, tourist facilities, and public restrooms. China also needs to establish more training programs to ensure that people within the industry understand how to support and promote inbound tourism.

"We have to value our local history and China's cultural heritage. That's what foreigners come to China to see, not soaring skyscrapers and wide streets, which can be seen in every Western country," Peking University's Wu said.

The preservation of ancient buildings, structures and historic centers is of prime importance, but China should be wary of "over designing" and rebuilding places and buildings of historical interest, and should concentrate on the upkeep of traditional narrow streets and original architecture, according to experts such as the World Bank's Procee.

"The biggest challenge is not to 'over-commercialize' historic areas with shops, but to provide other amenities, such as better access to traditional hutong (residential alleyways), temples, houses, and workplaces so visitors can really 'experience' how the Chinese lived in the past," he said.

Ultimately, though, he believes that to bring tourists flooding back to the city, the Chinese capital has no alternative but to clean up its act: "To remain competitive, attractive and livable, Beijing needs to focus even more on improving the air quality. This is not only an environmental problem, but also an economic one."

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