Cover Story

China calling

Updated: 2011-07-08 10:47

By David Bartram (China Daily European Weekly)

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There has already been remarkable growth in the sector, not just in terms of international visitors but also domestic tourism. Year-on-year growth was estimated at 20 percent, creating 1.55 trillion yuan (166 billion euros) of revenue for the tourist industry in 2010.

Earlier this year, China's first National Tourism Day was inaugurated in an attempt to build on this growth. The date chosen for the day - May 19 - was selected to commemorate the exact date almost 400 years ago that Xu Xiake set off on his 30-year voyage across China, documenting the country's sites and attractions in Travel Notes of Xu Xiake.

A series of initiatives were implemented to celebrate National Tourism Day and encourage tourism across the country, including a tourist tax-rebate program for travelers to Hainan Island and discounted entrance tickets to popular sites across China.

But while these initiatives were primarily aimed at domestic tourists, if China is to increase both the range and number of European travelers to the country, it may be best off evoking a different historical traveler - Marco Polo. His famous journey to China along the Silk Road is still read about some 700 years later.

Author Brian Lawrenson, who retraced Marco Polo's footsteps for his book Following Marco Polo's Silk Road, says: "In many ways Marco Polo is regarded as the world's first tourist, in that he came back from his travels and told all his friends about the trip.

"In Europe his book became essential reading for people in a position of wealth. It was translated into English, French and German so people across Europe could read his book. He spread the word of China in that form."

And like many modern-day visitors to China, Marco Polo and his fellow travelers were surprised at what he saw when he arrived. "They were gob smacked as they didn't know what to expect. They actually found that the Chinese court was very sophisticated, in fact more sophisticated than anything that had been seen in Europe up to that point."

Just as medieval Europeans held a dated impression of life in China, so do today's tourists. Elizabeth Morrell, founding director of Benmo, a specialist tour operator offering customized trips to China, argues that more could be done to sell the idea of China to foreign visitors.

"I think more can still be done, particularly in raising awareness," says Morrell. "People in Europe are still slightly nervous about going to China. The government needs to do more to show that China can be comfortable, easy to get around and not particularly restricted.

"Nowadays you can stay in hotels in China that compete with any hotel in London. You can have good food - Chinese or Western - and receive professional service from the guides you meet. There are the main tourist sites in places like Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai but also quieter places you can go and relax in luxury accommodation."


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