In the harbor of Macao, an international tourist destination because of its famous casinos, a cruise ship approaches the dock. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Tourism in China has experienced revolutionary change, growing from its most basic level to a strategic industry in China’s evolving socialist market economy. Two decades of development have brought positive experiences and presented some challenges, both with an impact on local attitudes, culture, and practice.
Before the economic liberalization that accompanied China’s open door policy in 1978, the country really did not have a modern tourism industry. Even after opening and normalization, change in the tourism industry was slow. The structure of China’s tourist industry remained relatively simple, although gradual changes could be noted as China moved more and more toward trade and commerce.
Not until the 1990s did an increase in the Chinese people’s annual income and improvements in public transportation infrastructure result in a considerable increase in domestic tourism. The number of domestic tourists increased from 300 million in 1991 to 629 million in 1995. Travel was becoming fashionable in China.
A 1998 survey on domestic tourism showed that the main motivations of Chinese tourists were sightseeing and visiting family and friends, accounting for 46.9 percent and 27.2 percent of the total, respectively. But such leisure travelers represented only the wealthiest portion of the Chinese population—even in 1998 the vast majority of people in China did not “vacation.” Rather, the only travel periodically done by the masses was for business, academic, health, and religious reasons.
Reformed Gold Weeks
The introduction of the reformed “Gold Weeks” holiday policy allowed the concept of leisure travel to really take hold in China, and the country began to experience an unprecedented travel boom. The Chinese government in September 1999 introduced a new holiday policy that extended three major public holidays—the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), which occurs in January or February, International Labor Day (1 May), and National Day (1 October)—such that each became a week long.
Zhu Rongji, prime minister at the time, hoped that this holiday policy would quicken development of the tourism industry in China, increase domestic demand, and stimulate economic growth. The new policy had an immediate effect. During the first Gold Week in October 1999, 28 million Chinese went on holiday, which earned 14.1 billion yuan ($1.8 billion) for China’s tourism industry. Experts have said that the institution of the Gold Weeks was probably the most effective policy ever introduced in China. Called “gold” because of the great economic benefits they would bring, not only did these holiday periods stimulate the development of the tourism industry, but also they had a great impact on Chinese lifestyle and culture. More Chinese, especially young people, have become willing to spend money on their holidays, traveling to tourist destinations inside or outside China. The word leisure has become a part of the Chinese vocabulary.
Travel and Leisure
Leisure, formerly a concept known only to the wealthy, now encompasses the masses in China. Farmers have embraced the concepts of travel and leisure, with more farmers traveling every year.
The holiday policy has had a direct impact on some of the most valued and prominent traditions in China. This impact is seen most poignantly by the nationwide debate of how to spend time during the Spring Festival, the most important festival in China—as important as Christmas is in the Western world. The festival traditionally is a time for families to reunite and to celebrate the New Year. But today more and more people are traveling elsewhere during the Spring Festival rather than returning home to their families. This option has created conflict. Generally speaking, the older generation insists that people respect the traditions of Spring Festival and return home for the holiday, whereas the younger generation insists that tradition is outmoded. For the young travel is a good alternative.
Public opinion in China is varied regarding the impact of tourism. Whereas many people enjoy the benefits that the tourism industry offers, others point to the negative ways it has affected the lives of people, especially those living in tourist areas.
Tourism promotes interaction between people in the tourist destinations and the outside world. Travelers to remote areas bring new technology and ideas, which in turn can promote social development of the local community. Thus, most local communities appreciate the opportunities given them by tourism, including knowledge of other languages, lifestyles, and ideas, as well as the chance to share their own culture with others.
But many people believe that this exposure has been a corrupting influence, damaging the local culture of the people—often minorities—who live in remote areas, which include many of China’s tourism destinations. With development of the tourism industry, many of these peoples have begun to adopt the language, clothing, and cultural values of tourists.
The development of domestic tourism in China has created a number of other problems, most notably problems of environment and heritage protection. Travel in China, extremely congested during the Gold Weeks, placed a great burden on most tourist destinations during those times. Lacking sustainable practices, many tourist destinations, especially natural and heritage sites, are suffering the impact of mass visitation.
For example, at the Dunhuang Caves, a United Nations World Cultural Heritage site in Gansu Province in northeast China, carbon dioxide and water vapor from the breathing of the great number of visitors during the Gold Weeks discolored the caves’ centuries-old murals. Implementation of sustainable practices has often taken a backseat to recovery measures; people working with these attractions spend all year recovering damaged works.
Travel safety was always an issue from the time the Gold Weeks were first declared. The Traffic Control Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security always reported an increase of traffic incidents and fatalities during these times. According to its statistics, 1,107 people were killed in a total of 3,358 traffic accidents during the Spring Festival peak tourist season in 2007, although the death toll dropped by 36.5 percent and the number of injured people decreased by 56.7 percent fewer than the same period of 2006. As a result of the traffic and other problems Gold Weeks presented, National Day, along with Labor Day, was reestablished as a one-day holiday in December 2007.
As domestic tourism has increased, the Chinese have had a growing perception that the quality of their trips is declining significantly. Overcrowding and deterioration of attractions are having an adverse effect on the tourism experience during the Gold Weeks to the point that inbound tourists have learned to avoid travel to China during these times.
Chinese authorities in recent years sought solutions to these problems, such as introducing compulsory annual leave to ensure that workers had chances to travel during times other than the Gold Weeks. In the meantime a large middle-class population with disposable income has become more dissatisfied with traveling inside China,
and outbound tourism has been increasing rapidly since the beginning of the twenty-first century. China’s outbound tourists totaled 20.2 million in 2003, overtaking Japan’s total for the first time. Around 100 countries or areas are open to Chinese tour groups with the USA receiving its first leisure tour groups in 2008. Also in July 2008, direct leisure flights from mainland China to Taiwan increased significantly.
What the increase in outbound tourism will mean is yet to be learned, but as with the increase in domestic tourism, the cultural and heritage implications are certain to include both positive and negative effects.
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Source: Ding, Peiyi, & Scott, Noel. (2009). Tourism. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2297–2300. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Every morning at dawn thousands of Chinese tourists flock to Tiananmen Square to watch the flag raising ceremony and listen to lectures and musical performances. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.
People traverse the Great Wall. The Great Wall remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
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