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My Take on Tourism in China

Tourism in China may not be what you expect, but it’s pretty good none the less.

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In China, if a lot of people are at something it means it must be good. In the USA, if a lot of people are at something it means it’s crowded. These contending mentalities are what perhaps differentiates the approach to tourism in these two cultures.

China is made for the Chinese. Punto. This may come as a sort of base statement, provoking a “duh” response, but the bigness of the personality footprint of this culture is impossible to step around. Chinese people know what Chinese people like, and they give it to themselves with gusto. Unlike many other recently developed countries, most of the tourist sites in China are primarily set up for domestic visitors. International tourists seem to only be a secondary target group to the sheer masses of Chinese people who are now visiting places all over their country.

Lianyungang Monkey

You see them all over the world, gaggles of middle-aged Chinese people in matching yellow baseball caps shuffling behind a young woman with a flag in one hand and a blowhorn in another. They move quickly to a place of interest, get out of their tour bus, take some photos, use the bathroom, reboard, and move on to the next place of interest. The Chinese idea of tourism is very much akin to an assembly line: bam, bam, bam, put it in the box, and ship it out.

Done that and got a photo in front of it to prove it.

China is such a wonderful country outside of its tourist infrastructure, but to see it you need to head out to places you’ve never heard of before. If a place in China has a name you’re familiar with, rest assured that it’s probably been turned into a facade of a fantasy of itself.

China seems to love the idea of “Old China” as much as any Westerner, it’s a type of self-reflective Orientalism that drives the tourist wheels of the country. Much like how people in the USA tend to romanticize the Wild West and cowboys, the Chinese are all about the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing. But like the Wild West is to modern America, historic China is just about the complete opposite of what the country is now.

This phenomenon is good, only strong and proud cultures romanticize themselves.

But as with most things in China, this approach seems to be taken to the extreme. Genuinely old cities are being razed to the ground in order to build brand spanking new replicas. The ancient district of Kashgar is being wiped out right now and a “new old city” is being erected in its place. I watched this happen in Qingdao prior to the Beijing Olympics. I watched as the bulldozers went through and cleared out entire neighborhoods of German colonial buildings just to put up colonial-looking replicas. The first time I saw this was in 2005, when I curiously watched as imitation old buildings were being hastily built around Lijiang to satisfy the demands of the ever-growing tourist hoards. Even in the small city of Taizhou, there is a street that was built a little over a decade ago which is designed to look like something out of the Tang Dynasty and a big project is in the works right now which consists of demolishing a neighborhood with genuine old houses and replacing it with a modern age version of itself.

The fact of the matter is that tourist destinations in China are often so bent on looking like a “Chinese fantasy” that they kill themselves dead. Sure, the beast of tourism does this everywhere, but in China it’s on a scale like no other. It’s amazing going to a city that is 2,500 years old and being unable to find much of anything older than 30 years. Sure, a lot of destruction of Old China occurred during the Cultural Revolution, but a part of the mentality of that time still exists: out with the old, in with the new. These Old China movie sets are inundated with the spirit of New China, and the effect leaves a stale taste in the mouth if you’re looking for the “genuine authentic” — the empty promise of tourism.

But is tourism in China really so bad?

Is the Chinese model of tourism really so bad?

No way. Well, not if you know what to expect.

If you know that the holy peak of Tai Shan has stairs leading up to the top that are full of tens of thousands of tourists then it’s a pretty climb. If you are prepared for the wails of women yelling through blow horns, crowds of picture takers, vendors everywhere, and a general theme park atmosphere, tourism in China isn’t half bad. But if you think you’re going to go out and find spiritual solace or the scenes from the tourist brochures at the famous sites of the Middle Kingdom, you may want to reconsider your plan.

Tourism in China: you often get something vastly different than what you expect. But why would you want to travel somewhere with no surprises?

It is the surprises of travel where you find yourself learning and feeling. China is different from anywhere else in the world, it is truly its own place without equal or comparison. So even if you find yourself entrenched in a mob of 10,000 Chinese people walking up the side of a mountain to a tourist epicenter, you are still among 10,000 of the people you ventured across the world to meet. Everything about the experience is still 100%, raw China.

I like Chinese tourist sites. They are set up amazingly well, they’re clean, there are toilets and places to get food and drinks everywhere. They are generally made for people who like to stroll around outside looking at pretty things. I have to admit that I like strolling around looking at pretty things too. The other tourists are generally pretty friendly, and they often scoop you up into their groups and/ or try to get you to pose for photos with them. Oddly, tourist sites are some of the best places to meet and hang out with Chinese people. On top of this, the Chinese seem to be the happiest tourists in the world. Now, they not only have the permission to travel around their country but the money to do so as well.

Tourism in China is very different from tourism in most other recently developed or developing countries. I can’t recollect how many times I’ve visited a tourist site in some far off country just to find it packed full of my countrymen and other tourists from Western countries. In these places, people who are from the country are often employed in the tourism industry — quasi-servants to the people with money who come from across the world. I can’t help but feel like a real ass in these scenarios. What is worse is that you just don’t find yourself learning too much in locations inundated with your own culture.

But this is not the case in China. If you go to a tourist site here, rest assured it’s going to be full of Chinese people. If you go to a hotel or hostel, most of the guests are going to be domestic tourists and travelers. The tourism bubble in China is largely made up of Chinese people, which gives it its own, unique feel.

But tourism in China is expensive

It’s hard to feel like a privileged prig when you see hoards of domestic tourists flaunting far more wealth than you could ever dream of having.

This is a country that is being reconstructed for the new rich — for people who seem to associate high price with high status. The lines have been draw here in China between those who can afford luxuries and those who cannot, and a new class system has been etched out around this parameter. Turning tourist is one of the most sought after luxuries in any country.

As some sects of the Chinese population become wealthier and tourism becomes more accessible to a wider span of the population, admission prices to attractions are likewise rising high. It is almost difficult to find a tourist attraction in China that comes with a price tag of under $10, and $15+ admission fees are not uncommon. If you plan on visiting multiple tourist attractions each day here, add another $30 to $50 onto your daily travel budget.

In a country where a good meal can still be had for under $2, dropping $15 to go look at something seems a little blasphemous. What is more is that everything in a tourism zone is going to be drastically more expensive. This is normal all around the world, but the price hike in China is truly drastic. If a bottle of beer costs 2RMB in a grocery store and 7RMB in a restaurant, be prepared to pay 20 to 40RMB for it in a tourist zone. The cost of food and other amenities in places in these localities is also hiked two to five times normal.

In point, if it’s your aim to see the sites of China be prepared to pay out. The average backpacker in China has the purchasing power of a poor schmuck.

International tourism

Even at many of China’s popular tourist destinations you will rarely find yourself crossing paths with another foreigner — and if you do they are more than likely living and working in China, not a tourist on an international vacation. Even in such popular getaways like Lianyungang, Qingdao, and Taishan, there are not many other foreign tourists.

That’s because they are all in the same places:

The Great Wall, Xi’an, the tourist zones of Shanghai and Beijing, Hong Kong, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Lhasa, Huangshan, or on the Yunnan backpacker trail. Outside of these sporadic nests the rest of the country is virtually free of foreign tourists.

What I don’t like are the tourist areas in China that attract masses of foreigners. And this is for one reason:

Foreign tourists in China are like a school of minnows bringing in the barricudas. In point, places with a lot of foreign tourists attract the people you don’t want to meet. When you’re in a place inundated with foreigners it’s YOU who the hawkers, tour guides, hustlers, and con-artists are coming after. The big tourist sites here are a field of dreams for legitimate vendors charging unlegitimate prices and those on the lee side of the law looking to separate tourists from their money by guile and trickery.

The places that 99% of foreign tourists go in China are the worst places the country has to offer. Why do I want to go to a place where I’m going to be treated like a dumbass just because I’m a foreigner? Why do I want to go to a place where the people talk bad about me because they take it for grated that I can’t understand their language? Why do I want to go to a place where complete strangers will try to take advantage of me because they think that I’m a fish out of water in their country?

Its not like this in the rest of China, and the contrast between being inside and outside of an international tourism zone is so stark that it feels like being in two completely different countries. When you are away from the areas that foreigners tend to go, the people seem to take it that you at least somewhat know what you’re doing or they simply have no idea what to do with you. In any case, they are not trying to lure you into scams, rip you off, or shove things in your face that they want you to purchase. You’re sometimes treated like a spectacle in here, but never like you’re money on legs.

Conclusion

China is a great country to live in, it’s an amazing country to travel in, but what is truly intriguing does not lie behind the gates of tourist attractions. You come to China for real life, not the artificial fantasies of tourism. The streets of this country are where the true attractions are. This place is changing faster than anyone can keep up with, you can look out of a window here and watch the landscape churn and change before you — a skyscraper is going up here, 100 high-rise apartments there, this part of the city is being demolished, that part is being renovated. The culture of this country is likewise changing at the same fast pace, as new value systems, desires, and opportunities are rising and becoming more and more available. China is a country of new cities and ghost cities, of ancient and modern living strategies, of over 50 different ethnicities spread out across a country that is almost the size of a continent. To put it bluntly, this place is interesting. Given all of this, why would anyone want to spend all their time here caged behind the gates of tourist attractions?

Filed under: China, Tourism

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3635 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

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  • Jack September 25, 2012, 9:31 am

    I’m going to comment on the “destruction” of places, specifically the link to the one about Kashgar’s so called “demolition.” And comments on that link that refer to the demolition of culture.

    What is happening is that old buildings are being replaced with new buildings. In the west, we do it differently. We “revitalize” areas that have been abandoned because every one with money has moved to the suburbs.

    I suppose Kashgar and every other city could just decide to build out their cities and let the old buildings just fall into rubble like Americans do. While an old building looks good to those who like to romanticize about certain notions, people do like to move to newer buildings. Making new homes available in the old neighborhoods does more to preserve a community than just building in the suburbs and getting people to move there.

    On a whole in China, they are trying to improve people quality of life through better homes. I can’t say that’s a bad thing. It might even be a good thing.

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    • Wade Shepard September 25, 2012, 11:36 am

      Hello Jack,

      What concerns me is not really that old buildings are being destroyed but that what is going up in their places do not allow for the same type of community to function. You can see this real clearly in some of the smaller cities in the east of the country where there are still little pockets of traditional, ground level communities without in the broader high-rise living scheme. In the communities people are in the streets, talking with their neighbors and families, and kids are running around all over. When these people are moved to high-rises, a large portion of the community element is destroyed, and the apartments become sub-divided sectors of sorts where people don’t really talk with their neighbors. I’ve been talking with people who grew up in the ground level communities but now live in high-rises about the difference. There’s a big one. I sort of addressed this on http://www.vagabondjourney.com/traditional-communities-demolished-as-china-modernizes/, but I have another article about this going up soon. But the change in living architecture really does have a big cultural impact.

      As this article is about the demolition of places from the angle of tourism, what I was mostly hitting at is the fact that people are being moved out of the old communities so that cities can make “old looking” commercial tourist zones that are being sold as something approaching traditional which is really nothing of the sort.

      Thanks for the discussion!

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      • Jack September 25, 2012, 10:45 pm

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that the same thing happens in America. It’s called progress. We can lament that the past is being destroyed just as people in America lament that the small towns have been lost and vibrant big city neighborhoods have been lost to suburbia and tract homes. What do people do anyways? They move into tract homes in the suburbs because they want a nice house. Stupid, very stupid and it’s a game that I never have played. In China, they are building up while America is building out. Different style, but the effect is the same. I too lament it as well, but people want progress and sometimes progress is not really progress. I think we are in agreement there.

        And as I said in my comment, it’s more directed at the link from the Christian missionary run site you had in the article about Kashgar. The same thing happened in America and it’s no more of an attempt to destroy the Uyghur culture than Levittown was an attempt to destroy American culture. (Conspiracy theorists say that Levittown was, but I’m not here to debate conspiracy theorists. 🙂 )

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        • Wade Shepard September 26, 2012, 12:02 am

          Farwestchina.com isn’t a missionary site, is it?

          I agree with you about progress, but I think there is an exception with places like Kashgar. The old town there has lasted for over a thousand years in some form or another, and some of it’s buildings are pretty much as old as Maya ruins.

          From what I’ve seen of how the transition to high-rise living destroys and separates Han Chinese communities, I wouldn’t doubt that the destruction of old Kashgar was in some part a political tactic. This isn’t a complete idea, but the high-rise seems to be the ultimate public control living structure. But I’d need to go to Kashgar and talk to people to say anything more that this. In a lot of ways it’s my impression that cultural/ community cohesion is directly connected to their housing architecture.

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          • Jack September 26, 2012, 8:39 am

            Farwest isn’t a missionary site, just run by a former Christian missionary disguised as teacher. He focused on converting over “oppressed” Uyghurs from their “evil” Islam beliefs but only managed to convert a few Han Chinese.

            About political control, a suburb is a good place for social control as well. Look at some of the insane covenants in those communities.

            One thing you’ll find in Xinjiang is that there is a lot of voluntary segregation by building. You’ll see Han in one building, Uyghur in another building. I’m sure that goes to the new buildings as well…..

            But what if it doesn’t? Forced integration of communities is not a new concept. It was enforced in the US years ago. It was a failure. Instead of segregation based on race, it’s segregation based on income. Wishful thinking(and some say gullible) would say that China is doing it to avoid segregation based on income.

            And while I don’t intend to go down the road, Han Chinese are not out to oppress Uyghurs anymore than you are out to oppress black Americans. In fact, affirmative action is alive and well in China.

            Telling are the large numbers of people who line up to buy an apartment as soon as a new community opens for reservations. People here are like the people in the US, they want something new and shiny.

            I think it’s BS, just as much BS in China and it’s BS in the USA. I won’t play the game in the US and I won’t play it in China. I just recognize that it’s a game in both places.

            Lucky for me, I’m just an observer. When my traveling days are over, I’ll scamper out to some out of the way small town and have some quiet existence with my grandchildren and talk about all that I’ve seen and experienced…

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  • trevor September 25, 2012, 3:04 pm

    hey Wade….. i spent nearly 3 months in China.. on my 18 month trip…….. Dali i found crazy….. the new ‘old city’… i did not go to Lijang cos i heard it was like Disney land…… i loved Shangri-la (Zhongdian)….i loved the hostel, the cobbled streets , even if they are new old cobbles… i hiked up Tai Shan… i went to the Terracotta warriors in Xi’an…., saw the great wall….. went in a camel in the Taklamakan desert….. i liked it there very much… EXCEPT.. the bus travel and train travel which were tooo smoky for me……. ok, so they smoke in the ends of the carriages, but the smoke wafts thru the ventilation system…. :(((…. BUT i am planning on going back there.. overlanding across china is def. a great trip….

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    • Wade Shepard September 25, 2012, 7:59 pm

      Excellent. Yes, traveling in China is truly amazing (well, if you’re into China). Right on, going overland is the way to do it.

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  • Félix September 27, 2012, 11:28 am

    Wade,

    Wonderful article. I mean, nothing more to add, you absolutely nailed it!

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    • Wade Shepard September 27, 2012, 7:54 pm

      Thanks Felix, much appreciated 🙂

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  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell September 27, 2012, 10:03 pm

    Good read … this being my 5th time to China since 1994, I’ve seem the changes …. But was out at a classic Ming village in the sticks the other day – no tourists of any description … however, I believe that was due to the mid-week timing and the rain …

    Like yourself, I prefer my sites crowded with locals than foreigners – as it’s just another day in China … Crowded. Real. Intense. Fun.

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    • Wade Shepard September 27, 2012, 10:30 pm

      “Crowded. Real. Intense. Fun. Another day in China.”

      That should be the country’s new tourism slogan. I would go to a place that advertised that.

      Have you had a chance to wander around the Tientai mountains much? Some places there seem as if they’ve been left out of the 20th, not to mention 21st century. Some of the most amazing experiences I’ve had yet in China, and maybe ever.

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      • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell September 28, 2012, 8:52 am

        No. Haven’t been to Taintai – but just checked out so pics – and since it’s only 2 hours from HZ, I will get there within the next few weeks. Thanks for tip, Wade.

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        • Wade Shepard September 28, 2012, 10:05 am

          Excellent. That’s where Han Shan’s hermitage was.

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  • Dmitri December 28, 2012, 6:15 am

    Very intense. Cool.

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