Millennium Post

Such a long journey

Alone I stand in the autumn cold On the tip of Orange Island, The Xiang flowing northward; I see a thousand hills crimsoned through By their serried woods deep-dyed, And a hundred barges vying Over crystal blue waters.

These emotive lines from the poem Changsha was Mao Zedong's tribute to the turbulent Xiangjiang river that ran through his hometown. It is now a tidy sales pitch to lure thousands of tourists from all over the land. Young tour guides in Changsha, the green, dreamy capital of southeast China's Hunan province, have an impressive repertoire up their sleeve. Armed with a chunky Mao portfolio, they whisk visitors around his ancestral home in nearby Shaoshan, proudly show off an ultra-modern village museum preserving an incredible collection of Mao memorabilia and go on to order stinky tofu - the 'Chairman's' favorite food at his pet restaurant. The grand finale, delivered with the confidence of a master conductor, is a drive through a high-tech bridge that swivels down to a riverine island in the middle of the Xiangjiang. Orange Island startles visitors with its unexpectedness – a granite sculpture of a young Mao, built to the size of a small hillock. Installed in 2009, this gigantic stone carving is part of the groundwork to celebrate Mao's 150th birth anniversary.

This occasion may still be three decades away, but Orange Island is a microcosm that typifies Chinese obsession with long-term plan models that integrates every industry and individual. Nowhere is this more evident than the tourism sector, which, in a span of three decades, has traveled an incredibly long distance – most of it scripted by the State. The success of Chinese tourism demonstrates that an innovative government acting as planner, coordinator and regulator can yield better results than the ad hoc efforts of the unstructured private sector. For countries with scarce resources, there is a lesson in China's self-assured journey from state control to market economics.


Prior to 1978, tourism was a non-profit, political activity, tasked with promoting the 'achievements of a socialist China'. The China National Tourism Administration actually had a promotion wing called the 'Propaganda Division, which zealously invited the foreign press and took them on guided tours. Tourism as a significant economic activity started taking shape only after Deng Xiaoping's 'open-door policy' recognized the sector's potential to earn some precious foreign exchange.   Tourism, Deng declared, was a political and economic weapon that could reap China a 'double harvest.'

Thus began an intense period of experimentation when infrastructure, facilities and human skills were built from scratch - from starting airlines to hotels, from sprucing up scenic spots to renovating cultural relics and from training hotel managers to young tourist guides. Operations remained strictly in government hands with Bureaus of Travel and Tourism managing every aspect with very meagre role for private players.  In the early 1980s, China allowed foreign investment in the hotel industry and in 1984 took an important step towards decentralisation by allowing various government departments, collectives and even individuals to invest in and operate tourism development projects. The Civil Aviation Administration began to encourage local governments  and departments to operate airlines. As a result, China is perhaps the only country in the world whose city and provincial governments own profit-making airlines. Gradually, the State Cabinet decided that travel agencies could also be privately owned as it became impossible for government bureaus to handle demand. In the meantime, the tourism bureaus aggressively incorporated western hotel management concepts and ordered universities, colleges and professional schools to promote 'tourism education.'

By the 1990s, the central government took stock once again and came up with a national tourism plan to correct the mistakes of the past. Planners discovered that 80 percent of hotels were in the luxury category, built on the speculation that foreigners with deep pockets would pay more for high-end comfort, while little or no facilities existed for the budget traveller. Ever quick to adapt and rectify, the Chinese government corrected its infrastructural loopholes and moved on to mass restoration of its cultural cities. A long-term policy was formulated whereby millions of dollars were spent on restoration, thus fortifying the iconic heritages of Great Wall, Forbidden City and Terracotta Warriors to withstand the billions of future footfalls. By 1994, pricing was de-controlled and private tourism enterprises were allowed to operate in a market economy. By 1996, tourism had become a significant economic activity with recorded tourist traffic hitting 51 million, a 27-fold increase from 1.8 million of 1978.


At the ground level, privatisation brought in new opportunities. Agencies like Hunan Huatian International Travel, which specialises in Changsha's 'Mao tourism' grabbed the opportunities thrown up by decentralisation, trading in on the province's revolutionary history as well as its scenic spots. Working closely with the local governments, these tour companies now form a vital link in meeting the growth targets of provincial governments.

Local governments in China can put the best corporates to shame when it comes to cut-throat competition. With local administration vying for maximum tourist footfall, it is little surprise that by 2009, China had the world's largest domestic tourism market with more than 1.9 billion domestic travelers generating a total revenue of over USD 150 billion. Now, with increasing purchasing power, rapid economic liberalisation and favorable government policies, tourism is heading for a more sophisticated level of growth. The 12th Five Year Plan period (2011-2015) slots tourism as a 'strategic pillar industry' with more intense branding and positioning of China as a tourism hub. It is diversifying from the earlier culture and natural tourism to high-end leisure vacationing, business and conference tourism and agro-eco tourism.

But there are times when competition to promote the industry can take bizarre forms. In Wuqing district in north China, authorities have created an Italian village with Florentine arcades, a grand canal and a Colosseum like buildings on what used to be corn fields to attract tourists. In southern China's Guangdong province, a USD 950 million replica of Hallstatt, a centuries-old Austrian town, has come up, triggering immense controversy. The mountain city of Huangshan has built 45 museums, from food to bonsai, to amuse visitors. This means one museum per 33,000 citizens, much higher than China's 1: 620,000 national ratio.

Some city governments, on the other hand, are more forward-looking. Luizhou in east China has converted its industrial character into a 'forest city', seamlessly merging the rural-urban divide by an intensive greening and afforestation plan. In the past five years, 88,000 hectares of new forest land has come up, which is now being used to push green tourism and 'agritainment.'  If Luizhou is working on ecological plans, Lijiang municipal government, in the south west, has opted for an intricate e-commerce platform to attract more footfalls. The city has signed a strategic agreement with Taobao, a popular e-commerce website. The site has sold thousands of travel cards to Lijiang-bound tourists, who can then avail maximum discount at hotels, travel agencies and bars which have signed tourism contracts with the Internet company. Tourism even in one of the world's more controversial region, Tibet, is equally aggressive. The Tibet regional government has demanded more airlines to enable international tourists to fly in easily. Tibet expects 10 million people this year from at least 40 countries and earn a revenue of 12 billion yuan.

Now working on its next generation agenda, the National Tourism Administration has created the first batch of 18 'intelligent tourism' pilot cities which will use new technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things. Not only will detailed and precise information be available, but potential tourists can avail of intelligent tourism transportation management, intelligent guides, e-tickets, mobile payment and multi-point communication.

China's history of tourism has several lessons for emerging economies - but only if it is tempered by a high level of commitment, control and adaptability. Central planning is widely accepted in China and achieving results is easier here. But along with it, is also a determination not to let communities and individuals fall by the wayside as it routinely ushers in sweeping changes.

Suranjana Roy Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Shanghai.
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