July 21, 2012
The cult of tourism In 1999 the Chinese were given three seven-day national holidays a year. Since then, the domestic tourism market can reach over 300 million trips during peak periods by Pál Nyíri http://mondediplo.com/2012/07/13chinaholiday It is common for students or personal assistants in China to go on holiday several times a year. The growing and diversifying urban middle classes enjoy window shopping in Hong Kong, visiting the casinos of Southeast Asia, backpacking, skiing in Manchuria, and package tours to see China’s “greatest mountains and rivers”. Even in rural areas, a growing number of people can now afford the occasional day trip to a temple or a hot spring resort: many take a holiday at the New Year — some are even prepared to sacrifice the traditional family gathering. Workers do not explicitly demand holidays (the dates and length of leave are usually set by employers), but these days find it easier to say they would like a change of scenery several times a year. Small businesses (which cannot afford to take a break if they are to remain competitive) and poorer people seem to be excluded from this new leisure society and have to make do with New Year family gatherings. Fifteen years ago the very idea of a holiday seemed outlandish to most people in China; today the Chinese are the main customers of their national tourist industry. Unlike the Soviet Union, Communist China did nothing to promote tourism for the first 50 years of its existence. Only after the economic reforms launched in 1978 did the government approve the creation of 12 holiday zones, designed to attract foreign currency from Hong Kong Chinese and expatriates. Chinese domestic tourism really began when the standard of living rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At first, it took the form of package tours for members of the civil service. For many years, a lack of spare time (except for Sundays and the New Year) and government reticence was an obstacle to independent travel (some senior officials were concerned over a rise in prostitution and gambling linked to tourism). In the 1990s, between 2,000 and 2,500 amusement parks, most of them with traditional or folk culture themes, were created in China with the full support of the authorities, which saw them as a way to strengthen patriotic sentiment. In 1998 a decision to promote tourism to stimulate consumption confirmed the trend. In 1999 three “Golden Weeks” of annual leave were introduced nationwide, centring on the public holidays of National Day (1), Labour Day (2) and the New Year (usually in February). The urban middle classes quickly made travel a part of their way of life — during the October Golden Week in 2011 the tourism ministry recorded 302 million trips. This figure (the most recent available) is hard to interpret, but is double that recorded for the same week in 2008. Young city-dwellers enjoy backpacking, but most Chinese still go on package holidays organised by their employer, an agency or a group of friends. Package tours are likely to dominate for many years as they appeal to first-time travellers, who make up most of the market. The most popular destinations are temples, mountains and historic sites. There is currently a strong revival in Buddhism, and tourism allows the Chinese once more to practice the ritual of going to burn incense at famous temples. Although China has no system for classifying its heritage, recently developed natural sites, destinations linked with ethnic tourism (largely to southwest China, to see the Tibetan, Dai, Dong or Miao peoples) and ancient cities, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and since rebuilt, are hugely popular. Especially popular are sites on Unesco’s World Heritage List, whose numbers are increasing yearly thanks to Chinese government pressure. China has made tourism a central element of its development strategy, and it’s no surprise that the majority of its Unesco sites are in the west, which is the poorest and least accessible part of the country. In many parts of the southwest, including Tibet, the leisure economy has become the chief source of income, prompting the authorities to show a new interest in the environment, sustainable development and heritage conservation. The Jiuzhaigou Valley in Sichuan Province, a Unesco World Heritage site, has a population of only a few thousand Tibetans, but attracts over three million tourists a year and has 44 large hotels, including ones run by Sheraton, InterContinental and Marriott. These tourist destinations, ancient or modern, are often within clearly defined zones, sometimes including several villages, with illuminated signage and extensive infrastructure. After paying an entrance fee, groups led by guides can admire the scenery or enjoy shows featuring traditional dances. Authenticity, so important to many Western tourists, is only valued by the ramblers and a small number of rich people with sophisticated tastes (the kind who have luxury holiday homes in the mountains, designed by famous architects). Seaside holidays are also starting to be popular, though, given the traditional aversion to suntans in China, they do not include long periods on the beach. Overseas travel is growing. Foreign budget airlines have appeared on the scene, and China’s Southeast Asian neighbours have recently decided to make it easier for its nationals to visit by granting them visas on arrival. Sixty-five million Chinese crossed a national border last year, 13 times more than in 1997. But although travel to Europe, Africa and other parts of the world is growing rapidly, young city dwellers prefer weekends in Hong Kong or backpacking in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
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