Like almost every other aspect of China's relations with the Western world and Japan during the past two years, tourism has moved from the age of wide-eyed euphoria to one of sober evaluation, of both problems and opportunities.
Many tourists complain that the exoticism of China is no longer enough to compensate for overcrowded and often barely adequate hotels, sudden, unexplained changes of plan, and uneven, dilatory service. of course, such complaints are not the rule; many visitors still find that the Chinese cuisine is superb, that guides go out of their way to be helpful, that tipping is very much the exception, not the norm.
But as Lu Xuzhang, director of the General Administration of Travel and Tourism, pointed out in an interview with the official People's Daily last year, visitors to China in 1978 (the first big year for Chinese tourism after the restoration to normality after the fall of the so-called "gang of four") numbered as many as the cumulative total of visitors during the previous 20 years.
With such a sudden surge, keeping the country's limited accommodations and travel facilities up to international standards is a severe strain, particularly during the peak summer season. At the same time, construction of new hotels and facilities progresses slowly.
China's three-year period of readjustment, of which this is the second year, discourages large captial expenditures. The Western and Japanese companies that were returning from China with mouth-watering hotel construction and management agreements a year ago are now saying very little. The progress from letter of intent to firm contract is long, arduous, and frequently disappointing.
With all this, tourism is bound to be a growth industry in China. Last year 960,000 tourists visited, according to a spokesman for the tourism administration. Of these, 800,000 were overseas Chinese and 163,000, foreigners. The corresponding figures for 1978 were: 530,000 total, including 400,000 overseas Chinese and 130,000 foreigners. Tourism earned China $420 million in 1979, the spokesman said.
The Chinese are looking to tourism to help meet the growing trade gap as their industrialization and modernization program eats up foreign exchange. (Last year China imported nearly $2 billion more than it exported.)
New hotels are therefore going up, although at a pace slower than originally planned. A 25-story hotel in Shanghai, designed and finance entirely by the Chinese, has been under construction since late last year. I. M. Pei, the Chinese-born American architect, has designed a hotel for the Chinese in the western hills outside Peking. An Australian group has built inexpensive motels in six cities, bringing with them everything from doors and windows to curtains with koala-bear motifs.
Last year, a tourist spokesman said, China had around 30,000 beds available for foreign tourists. This year, with all the expansion and new construction going on, it is impossible to say what the actual status is.
An institute of tourism has been established in Shanghai that will hold two-year training courses in hotel management. New magazines dealing with tourism are being published. A national conference on tourism has been organized, the first one having been held in the seaside resort of Beidaihe last September. And there is growing concern for the environment as well.
High-rise hotels are discouraged in such scenic spots as guilin (Kweilin). There is a new interest in using local materials and Chinese designs. At the moment, with hordes of tourists poised to pour in over the spring and summer, there is a mood of uneasy anticipation and some confusion. But for all their complaints, tourists are an amazingly hardy lot. If the immediate outlook for tourism in China is uneven, long-term prospects look reasonably encouraging.