Rogue Historian is a weekly column by Jeremiah Jenne, a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing. Find more of his writing at Jottings from the Granite Studio.

If it’s summer, it must be time to wonder why international travelers are staying away from China.  Like Wimbledon, the Red Sox, and men exposing their oversized beer bellies on the streets of Beijing, these laments have become a routine part of the warmer months.

From this week’s South China Morning Post:

The number of inbound tourists grew at an average annual rate of just 1 per cent between 2005 and 2015 – and eight out of 10 of those were from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, according to a report by a Beijing think tank.

The rate trails that of both developed countries and other emerging economies, the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG) report said. It’s also far behind the average for the Asia-Pacific region, which saw inbound tourist traffic grow by more than 80 per cent in that period.

The question is: Why?

I’ve worked in the travel and education industry in Beijing for over a decade and there is no one easy answer or fix.  There are of course many reasons why people should come to China, but there are also some pretty clear factors which keep China from fulfilling its potential as a destination for international travelers.

1. Environmental Concerns

Over the past decade, China has been dealing with some pretty serious environmental issues. Cities like Beijing have earned a nasty reputation for toxic air. Whether that’s fair or not – and Beijing does have its share of blue sky days – when planning a holiday many people tend to think twice about destinations which might require them to tour with a specially-designed face mask for “easier respiration.”

2. China’s domestic and outbound travel industry is booming

While inbound tourism has grown at an anemic 1% per year since 2005, in the same period the number of Chinese traveling abroad has tripled, from 41 million in 2006 to 122 million last year. Domestic tourism is big business as well. This year, the China National Tourism Agency expects domestic tourists to take 4.88 billion trips.

It’s more lucrative for local travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites to cater to Chinese travelers who often have very different needs and expectations than international visitors

Taking Chinese government statistics at face value is always a dicey proposition, but the overall trend is clear: It’s more lucrative for local travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites to cater to Chinese travelers who often have very different needs and expectations than international visitors. Services and facilities in China are designed for the domestic tourist, not the world traveler.

3. Service standards need a general upgrade

China’s development over the past 40 years has been nothing short of miraculous, particularly in infrastructure. While it’s easy to focus on the infrastructure which continues to lag (this is that part where you share your favorite public restroom story) China’s major cities feature some of the world’s best — or at least, newest — tourist and travel facilities. High speed rail. Futuristic airports. Five-star hotels. China’s got them.

The problem is that while the hardware is shiny and new, the software hasn’t kept pace. It’s only natural that in a society which has undergone a dizzying pace of growth over only a few decades there are going to be some bumps as people adjust to new processes, technology, and rising expectations. Ask anyone in the hospitality industry in China and they will tell you that training/retaining good staff members is their biggest headache. Many employees, when they sign on to work in a hotel or restaurant, do so without ever having been to a hotel or — in some cases — a restaurant before. Service training needs to start from the ground up, and not everyone gets it. Those who do become extremely valuable employees, who then are the target of poaching from competitors.

While the hardware is shiny and new, the software hasn’t kept pace

One unfortunate result is that while some companies have excellent orientation programs, many other businesses fail to put much effort into staff training, creating a negative feedback loop: “Why train employee X because s/he will just leave for more money, but at the same time I’m not going to pay employee X very much because — for some reason — they’re bad at their job and I can always replace them with somebody who isn’t that much worse.” Is it any wonder why Employee X can’t be bothered to give two squirts of squirrel shit about your happiness and comfort when you enter their place of employ? (Side note: I’m not talking about language ability. Frankly, too many people in the service industry are hired for their “English skills” rather than their “people skills.”)

4. Differing attitudes of historic preservation and restoration

Many travelers come to China to see the country’s rich history and culture. Many of these same travelers come away disappointed. Vibrant neighborhoods in China’s cities are being turned into bland, faux-modern blocks of brutalist conformity. Actual historic structures are ripped down to build “historical reproductions.” Formerly quaint old cities are being transformed into commercialized tourist traps. In many cases, these changes are in keeping with what many local tourists want to see and do when on holiday, but they also leave those local and international visitors who are looking for historical or cultural authenticity a bit cold.

5. The behavior of fellow travelers

There are a lot of people in China and everybody knows it. For visitors lucky enough to grow up in a society which fetishized personal space, China can be something of a shock. One of the first concerns travelers relate to me is always about the crowding and crowd behavior. It only takes a quick Internet search to find any number of “Chinese tourists behaving badly” stories. But the behavior of tourists in China has less to do with “Chinese culture” than it does the mechanics of stuffing large groups into small spaces and not paying enough attention to the dynamics of crowd control beyond hiring a few security guards to periodically squawk incomprehensibly at the tourists through broken megaphones.

6. Visa and Permit issues

Despite policies designed to allow visa-free stays in some of China’s major cities of up to six days, getting a Chinese visa remains a pain in the ass compared to many other potential destinations. Once here, some areas which might otherwise be a draw for visitors, including Tibet, require additional permits.

7. China’s soft power problem

This is a larger issue than just tourism, but China has long had difficulties projecting soft power. Part of the problem is the Chinese government’s neediness and general insecurity when it comes to culture. You can’t dictate soft power, it just happens. Even at tourist sites, the message is “ADMIRE US!” rather than “learn about our story.” Everything is couched in terms of biggest, oldest, most continuous. It’s exhausting and counter-productive. Actual historical context tends to be lacking because, let’s face it, state organs are uncomfortable with history. It’s easier to proclaim the size of a structure than to discuss the reasons that structure needed to be rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution.

Related:

A Strange Day in Beijing’s Southern Water Town

China should be attracting more tourists than it does. It is a large country with enormous diversity in ecosystems, culture, cuisine, and activities. Transportation and tourist infrastructure are improving at an impressive rate. China is also home to some of the world’s oldest and most fascinating civilizations. But for now, there remain challenges — some fixable, others which may require more time to solve — that depress the rate of inbound travel.

As one traveler recently told me, “I came looking for the real China. The real China I thought existed doesn’t and I’m not sure I completely enjoyed the real China that I found.”

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Column Archive |

Previously:

Kowtow and Get Out: How I Was Almost Ejected from the Forbidden City