China has not yet become a go-to global tourist destination. The potential is there, but the country suffers from a poor image and a number of bureaucratic hurdles, says Frank Sieren.
The order came from the top: President Xi Jinping reiterated his view that China needed a "toilet revolution." He said that both urban centers and rural areas, especially those which were touristy, needed clean toilets, not the "holes in the ground" that are so off-putting to visitors. He even suggested that there should be warm water, perfumed facilities and wifi access. Xi Jinping was once again trying to boost an initiative that was launched in 2004, since when some 68,000 improved toilets have been installed. The state-run People's Daily estimates that some 64,000 will follow by 2020.
China received its most important facelift in recent history for the 2008 Olympics, when a national education program for "good behavior" was also launched. Taxi drivers, police officers, hairdressers and neighborhood committees were encouraged to brush up on their English to improve the stays of foreign visitors. The idea was for Beijing to come across as a world-class city.
Visa regulations a hindrance
Earlier this month, another measure was introduced to boost tourism in China. Tourists from 53 countries, including the US, Japan and all EU states, will in future have access to a new transit visa at the airport, so that they can travel without difficulty to Beijing and stay for up to six days. There are similar initiatives in Shanghai and Guangzhou. China is notorious for its complicated and comparatively expensive visa system, despite its being relaxed a little in 2015 since when travelers have been able to visit Beijing (and a handful of other cities) without a pre-arranged visa for 72 hours on condition that they are in transit — i.e. continuing on to Hong Kong or a third country. Inexplicable.
But visas are not the only reason why China has not yet become a tourist magnet, despite some unique sights. According to the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), travel to China rose only by 1 percent between 2005 and 2015, well below the average for the Indo-Pacific, to which travel in general rose by 80 percent. According to the China National Tourism Administration, in the first six months of 2017, over 62 million Chinese citizens went abroad. Only 14 million visitors came to China.
About 80 percent of these were from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Why? The Tourism Administration blames the global financial crisis. This might be the case in part but it is also true that China's image has been tarnished abroad by reports on pollution, as well as the one-party system. Chinese tourists abroad have not always helped to improve their country's reputation. Visitors to China are often pleasantly surprised by how little the reality corresponds to the image. Not many people know that China boasts a wealth of national parks that people can trek through undisturbed by huge tourist groups.
English doesn't get one very far
However, there is a clear lack of tourism infrastructure. Visitors need a guide, even in big cities. They also need basic knowledge of Mandarin to get around since few people speak English. Tourists in China cannot even resort to Google Maps or Google Translate for help, since these are blocked and only accessible if Virtual Private Network (VPN) software is downloaded at a cost.
From February onwards, the government even intends to block the use of VPNs. This will deal a bitter blow to tourism at a time when posting holiday photos on Facebook and Instagram (also blocked in China) has become as important as travel itself. Moreover, the life of tourists is almost made more difficult by the fact that digital technology is taking over China. More and more people use their phones to pay rather than cash but tourists cannot do this in China, as they do not have the necessary Chinese bank account, which is only available to those with a long-term residency permit.
Progress on question of toilets
Though China is experiencing a bike-sharing boom, tourists cannot use the bikes, which are literally everywhere, as they cannot easily download the apps to pay for them.
China's homogeneous population is another reason why the urban centers of the country's mainland might not be accessible to international visitors, compared with cities like Bangkok or Tokyo. Even China's most international city — the financial hub of Shanghai — attracts only about 150,000 to 200,000 visitors of non-Chinese origin — much less than 1 percent. Beijing could look to Hong Kong in future. In 2017, the special administrative region was one of the most popular cities in the world, with 25.6 million visitors. Beijing wants to surpass this by the Winter Olympics of 2022.
This week, the National Tourism Administration (CNTA) teamed up with the online map Amap to develop an app that lets users know where the next toilet is. The All Tourism Toilet Navigate System mentions 500,000 and even rates how comfortable they are, in English too.
Frank Sieren, DW correspondent and author of "Geldmacht China" has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.