Individual travel to China easier than ever before

According to ancient lore, travelers to the Orient relied on magic carpets, flying dragons, and upholstered clouds for their transportation needs. Today, however, travelers to the Far East, and to mainland China in particular, are asking their travel agents to arrange more conventional agendas such as FITs and specialized tours.

Foreign individual travel (FIT) in China was formally approved by the Chinese government in October 1982. In the past, travelers to China had to go in groups, but now the Chinese government will consider applications for individual travel to 29 approved cities in China.

Frederick Zaegel, president of Repco Printers Inc. of St. Louis, traveled to China on a FIT earlier this year. He and his wife picked the cities they wished to visit and gave their agenda to a local travel agent. The agent then contacted Lindblad Travel, a travel operator which was able to set up the six-day tour, including a visit to Peking and Shanghai. At the airport the Zaegels were met by an interpreter who stayed with them throughout their tour. In each city, a private limo took them to their hotel, to tourist sites, and to restaurants.

FITs are ideal for people who cannot fit a scheduled China tour into their vacations, or who want to focus on a hobby or a professional interest.

Julie Segraves, the curator of Asian Arts at the Colorado University Museum in Boulder, wanted to investigate the silk and rug industries in China. She contacted China Educational Tours, which arranged an agenda that included a group tour followed by a FIT.

When she was with the group, the Chinese guide who accompanied them made a tremendous effort to make sure all were seeing the things they wanted to see and doing the things they wanted to do. Miss Segraves's knowledge of the Chinese language, culture, and etiquette helped her to accomplish this.

When she traveled alone, her knowledge of the Chinese language and etiquette enabled her to communicate with professional colleagues at specialized museums and factories that were not included in group tours.

Specialized tours are scoring even higher than FITs on the popularity charts. Gilbert Garber, president of Garber Travel, notes that group tours with a specific focus, such as studying wild mushrooms, are usually sold out.

What about the stories one hears about the lack of hotel space in the People's Republic of China? Jim May, promotional director of China Educational Tours says that in the late 1970s China did have a severe lack of Western-style hotels and English-speaking guides.

''Each year the situation improves, and the Chinese are taking concrete steps to solve remaining problems,'' Mr. May said. ''For instance, they have opened a college in Beijing (Peking)which has just one purpose: to train English-speaking guides. They have built new hotels in major cities and are sending personnel overseas to study management skills.''

''And remember,'' he added, ''that in China one does not always find the best hotels or first-class amenities, but you do get contact with the people. The Chinese themselves will do everything possible to make your trip enjoyable, to make it what you want it to be.''

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