for National Geographic News
The media hype surrounding SARS spurred an 82 percent decline in visitors to China this past year alone. The timing couldn't have been worse: Just months earlier, the World Tourism Organization had forecasted that China would net a billion visitors in the year 2020, a figure that could have made the country the world's largest tourist destination. Despite the hit, the Chinese government hopes its tourist industry will soon be back on track. Meaning there's never been a better time to visit China says Traveler Editor Keith Bellows. Here's why.
Why travel to China right now?
The deals are incredible. Ritz Tours, for example, is offering a five-night trip in Hong Kong, including round-trip airfare, four-star accommodations, entertainment, and more from U.S. $777 per person. Through the end of September, Shangri-La Hotels, which has 16 properties in China, is offering up to 40 percent off, with rates starting at U.S. $41 per night. And there are many more bargains out there. We'll keep seeing deals until people can put aside their fears about SARS. China was hit hard, and SARS is a serious virus. But at this point it's safe to travel there. No new cases have been reported since June, according to the World Health Organization. In fact, I'm going in November.
How expensive is China once you get there?
It depends on how you travel and what the exchange rate is when you go. But, to put it in perspective, for the price of one night in a five-star hotel in Manhattan, you can stay in a comparable hotel in Chinaplus, get three extravagant meals, a tour guide, and a cultural performance. You can also get great deals right now on silk, jade, jewelry, and rugs. Of course once Beijing hosts the 2008 Olympics and traffic to China increases, prices are likely to skyrocket. So you'd better go now.
If you had an unlimited amount of time to spend in China, what would you do?
I would first go to Beijing, the capital and powerhouse of China. The Forbidden City and the Great Wall are both nearby. From there I might go to Shanghai. It's got a Raiders of the Lost Ark flavor as a huge, bustling city with a landscape that almost looks like it's from Blade Runner. Then there's Hong Kong where the Star Ferry still plies back and forth across the riverit's a real crossroads of cosmopolitan Asia. The shopping is fabulous and you can take a cruise on the Yangtze River to see the countryside. Off-the-beaten-path, I would go to the Gobi Desert and explore in a jeep or X'ian, the original capital of China, where an impressive museum of terra cotta warriors exists. Or I might visit Lhasa in Tibet. It's the world's highest city and used to be the home of the Dalai Lama. If I were really ambitious, I might try to travel the Silk Road, which was in A.D. 200 the real link between East and West, from Rome to Beijing.
The government is currently developing Shangri-La. What's there, and can travelers go yet?
Shangri-La was the fictional paradise in James Hilton's Lost Horizon. A real place in Chinathe confluence of the Yunnan, Tibetan, and Sichuan Provincesis said to have inspired Hilton. The area is beautiful, vast, wild, and right now visitors can go to hike or boat. Over the next decade, the government plans to spend an estimated ten billion dollars (U.S.) to turn it into an ecological reserve. They're hoping that it will be a real draw for visitors. But I wonder how carefully it will be developed. It's possible that all of Shangri-La's natural beauty could be ruined if there's no regulation on the number of roads built there or the number of people who can visit each year. The tourism industry didn't really exist until 1978, when leader Deng Xiaoping "opened" China for tourism. So the country's ability to develop its infrastructure is still in nascent stages. Shangri-La will be the first real test to see how well the Chinese government does.
To American travelers at least, China is a very foreign place. What travel tips can you offer?
English is not commonly spoken in China, so hire a good guide to help you get around. It's best to get a recommendation from a friend or another source that you trust. If you simply go online, you'll find a lot of China-based operators that are advertising they've been in business since 1950. Of course this is a huge red flag because travel to the country wasn't allowed until 1978. Also, counterfeiting is rampant in China. While you can get a great deal on jade or silks, you've got to be careful that you don't get bogus merchandise.
Can China recover its losses in tourist dollars?
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