Cover Story

Travel pioneer who helped open China to the world

Updated: 2011-07-08 10:47

By David Bartram (China Daily European Weekly)

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Travel pioneer who helped open China to the world
A group of British tourists in downtown Xi'an. More Europeans are choosing to take their holidays in China. [Li Hui / for China Daily]

When Elizabeth Morrell first visited China in 1976, Chairman Mao Zedong had just died and the government was beginning to embark on a series of reforms that would open up the country and transform China into an economic superpower.

But the British tour operator, then a student, saw China's reforms not just as an opportunity to open the country up economically, but also to improve access for tourists wishing to visit a country closed to all but a select group of invited foreigners for a generation.

"There was a pent-up demand from people wanting to visit China come the late 1970s," says Morrell, who has run tours to China for more than 30 years. "I think allowing foreign visitors in was key to China's opening-up policy. It was not only for economic reasons but also to show they were open to new ideas and having foreigners visit, whereas before it had been very closed. And also in order to develop they needed foreign currency."

During her first visit to China, Morrell witnessed first hand the seeds of an international tourist industry being sown in the country, and upon returning to Britain, decided to get involved. She became a founding director of tour operator Voyages Jules Verne, whose main focus at the time was on offering trips to China.

"There were hundreds of people who had not been able to go to China because it had been closed for so long, so we were lucky to be able to capitalize on that. When I first came to China, Thomson (the tour operator) had just advertised their first commercial tours to China. Thomson was a big company that was used to dealing with just one hotel and charter flights. At the time China was a bit complicated for them, so we went and set up our own company."

Voyages Jules Verne began to offer more extensive tours to China throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s. But unlike today, visitors were faced with a series of problems a world away from the modern airports and hotels that greet them today.

"People typically visited for 12 to 15 days," recalls Morrell. "They would visit Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, the Yangtze river, Guilin, that kind of thing. One of the difficulties in the early 1980s that didn't improve until well into the 1990s was that there were not enough good hotels. The transport infrastructure also couldn't cope a lot of the time.

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