How China Projects Itself to the World as a Travel Destination

When browsing through travel brochures for Beijing, Shanhai and other popular holiday destinations in China, I was somewhat surprised to see that not only did several of the brochures offer an extensive list of generic holiday activities like ‘Golf’ and ‘Skuba Diving’, but they didn’t seem to offer much in the way of exploring the culture. But why, I asked myself, would you want to play  game of golf, which you can do at home, when you’re in a beautiful country full of colour, exotic foods, new people, and interesting places? What strikes me as strange is China’s apparent want to westernise and commercialise itself.

Lychee Park, Shenzhen

Ironically, having never been to China myself, I have very set views of Chinese culture and ways of life. When I think of China, I immediately picture two vastly contrasting images: One being an idyllic countryside, a few solemn, architecturally stunning Chinese houses set against a backdrop of snowy mountains, cherry blossoms and rice fields; The other being a busy, polluted city with constantly rising skyscrapers, traffic jams, and markets bursting full of colour, exciting food and interesting people. All in all, it comes across as an extremely fascinating culture.

People at a Chinese Market

What I can’t understand, however, is China’s apparent need to sway towards commercialism. As a country it seems desperate to abolish its past, its beauty and its nature, in order to make room for westen culture, money and modern success. In Duncan Hewitt’s ‘Getting Rich First: Life In A Changing China’, he tells us of Mr Zhao, the owner of one of the last remaining houses in ‘The Forbidden City’, Beijing.  ‘We came home one day, and saw the Chinese word ‘Chai’, which means ‘demolish’ painted on the wall of the house…’

The Chinese do not appear to have any desire for frivolities or riches. They seem to strive for power, and high achievements rather than beauty and wealth, unlike many other countries. Hense, the Chinese are gradually ruling out everything that is great about their country. Their cities and roads are constantly expanding to make room for more factories and skyscrapers. And therefore, their countryside and nature suffers. Essentially, they are ruling out their past to make room for their future: Power.

A Westernised Chinese Wedding

What I noticed while flicking through travel brochures and ‘Places to Visit in China’ websites, was that the British guides focussed on Chinese culture, where to find the best views, where to experience Chinese ways of life first hand, while the Chinese guides were very much focussed on the best hotels and resorts, and the generic, mostly western, activities available. I found it ironic that the British flaunt China’s great qualities more than the Chinese do, but then again, adapting to western culture is ultimately what has made China become so successful.

Shoppers in a busy Chinese IKEA store

‘I have worked for this company for 15 years’, he said, in his lilting English, ‘and I have never seen anything like it.’ He seemed a little pale at the recollection. ‘The Saturday before last, we had 35,000 people in the store,’ he continued, ‘It looked like a tornado had gone through the place!’….’It was…woah!’ He sighed…Mr Gustavsson was, it perhaps goes without saying, the newly appointed manager of  the Chinese capital’s first branch of IKEA.’

Quote from ‘Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China’

Duncan Hewitt

By connecting and cooperating with Europe and America, this thriving consumerist culture can constantly grow and become more and more powerful as a nation.

China’s ancient and rural regions, however, are still making a great impact on the country. China boasts a vast countryside of mountains, rivers and some of the best views in the world.  Not only are these fantastic travel destinations, the countryside is also essentially what feeds the nation. ‘In a sense, it is rather ironic.The countryside, after all, is where China’s economic reforms really got under way in the years after the Cultural Revolution…’  

Yellow Mountain (Mt. Huangshan)

Despite China’s growing cities, populations and power, their truly great advantages are their history, their culture and their countryside. As these, ultimately, are why people travel to China.

China’s Image Abroad

Over the past few decades the world has seen tourism in China expand enormously.  It is now the third most visited country in the world and in 2010 alone it saw 55.98 million tourists explore its incredible culture.

So what is it that attracts so many to this historical country?

That is what I aim to find out.  I want to discover how China is “sold” to potential tourists through travel brochures and sites.  I want to show what these travel agents have to offer and how they encourage this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip.

Over the years, china has seen a lot of destruction and as a result has had to construct new ‘historic’ buildings or temples from scratch to promote tourism.  It does, however, still hold some of the greatest wonders of the world.

The first thing I noticed when looking at these travel brochures and sites were the glorified photographs.  Whilst that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I began to see similarities between many of the photos and all these sites were promoting the same tourist attractions; The Great Wall of China, the Xi’an’s Terracotta Army, The Forbidden Palace and Tian’anmen Square.  These are the main tourist attractions, but China has a lot more to offer.

Most travel sites offer a variety of holiday’s packages, including family holidays, group holidays, holidays for those travelling alone and those for students.  However, most are encouraging group tours. During my research I came across a travel site called Wendy Wu Tours.  This site offers an experience that is slightly different to any I’ve seen before.  It promotes group tours depending on your fitness level.  There are three categories; comfortable, medium and active paced tours.   I think this is a great way to promote a holiday, however like many group tours you are given a few days to explore China for yourself and for many who are left without the security of a tour guide who knows the culture and language it can be very hard to adjust to and can be very challenging.

When it comes to advice, most travel sites don’t offer much on what to be aware of and most are promoting group tours.  But Travel the Real China is a website that gives brilliant advice on places to go, what to be aware of and gives an account of someone’s personal experiences.  He’s honest about the things he struggled with such as the language barrier but also says that ‘Seeing and experiencing the Real China will change your life’ everything from the sights and the sounds to the people and the amazing food.  Along with Travel the Real China, Audley Travel gives an incredible account of China and what to expect.  It provides itinerary ideas, suggested accommodation, travel guides, the best time of year to go and specialist knowledge.

Tourists are clearly drawn to this country’s incredible culture, its history and the stories it has to tell, but how much longer will this last? China is under threat from rapid monderisation.  Many communities have been destroyed to make room for China’s booming population and the only way to do this is by building tall blocks of apartments where these small communities once lived.   Whilst Thomson travel sites promotes a fascinating holiday that tells a story of two countries, one being ‘an ancient kingdom embedded in the past, the other an electrifying agent of change’ it also warns tourists that ‘the China of old threatens to disappear forever’ due to ongoing changes in its economy.

All these travel sites and brochures offer different things but all of them continue to encourage tourists to visit this incredible country; a country that has a reputation for exceptional hospitality and a culture that is so inspiring.

Thomson describe its China tours as a way to ‘discover the unique rural landscape in all its glory’, Thomas Cook describes it as ‘unmissable’ and Audley Travel say ‘China is truly a country of thrilling contrasts, bursting with energy and magic.’

I suppose it’s the same with any holiday, no matter how much research you do beforehand you never know what to expect until you experience it for yourself.  For me, I’d love to experience the Real China.

China’s Image Abroad: Tourism

China’s tourism industry is booming. With 55.98 million visitors in 2010, it is ranked as the world’s third leading travel destination, currently trailing behind only France, and the USA. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, it will have overtaken them both by 2016-2018, this is a rapid rise in popularity considering that up until the mid 70’s China was closed to foreign tourism. It’s not hard to understand the attraction, China as a country is magnificent, mysterious and beautiful, it’s culture is the complete opposite to ours making it exotic and exciting.

When you look through travel brochures or travel agent’s websites you will most likely be greeted with an image of a panda, or a picturesque landscape, or ancient sculptures, nothing modern certainly. This massively contrasts with how China now wishes to be seen by the world. China’s desire to become more westernized has seen it disregard large parts of its heritage, it wants to be taken seriously as a major player in the world. Proof of this effort is visible in Beijing where less than five per cent of its buildings will remain by the end of its modernization revolution. This shiny and intimidating version is the polar opposite to the oriental and delicate version of the landscape portrayed to tourists. There is no doubt that Beijing is vastly impressive and worth visiting, but would most people travel to the country if they only got to see this westernized China, and not authentic China? Probably not.

The most famous example of an oriental Chinese landmark is of course the magnificent Great Wall of China. Mistakenly believed to be a single wall that circumferences China, it is actually a discontinuous network of individual wall segments built by various different dynasties over a period of 2000 years to protect China’s northern border. Another commonly believed myth is that the wall is the only man made object visible from space. This tale possibly originated from Richard Halliburton’s book “Second Book of Marvels”, which was published in 1938 before humans had ever seen the earth from space. When you consider these two revelations plus that the wall has been largely restored in both the 50’s and the 80’s, suddenly the Great Wall doesn’t seem quite so mind blowing. It is often the case that the sections not in the public eye are in a serious state of disrepair and sometimes eradicated due to ageing and the locals pinching the bricks. Adding to the facts the description of it being the “largest cemetery of earth” as 1 million people died during its construction, this wonder of the world doesn’t seem so quite so wonderful anymore. This is obviously not the way the wall is portrayed to potential tourists, that’s not to say that the way it is presented is false though, there is not doubt that the building of the wall was a truly remarkable feat and is an important piece of Chinese history. Nobody can criticize China, or travel businesses, for fudging the negatives and making a bigger deal out of the positives, every country does, it would be bad logic not to.

Even if China is evolving as a nation its history and traditions will always exist. People will still travel to see its vibrant and beautiful architecture, its breathtaking landscapes and to experience its rich and thrilling history. China is sold as being a nation that still retains it’s traditions, rituals and strong identity, and this is because it does truly still retain all these elements, unlike many other nations who have left these behind in their cultural revolutions. I believe this is why China can be so popular, that despite that much of the country is unrecognizable from how it looked just two decades ago, it’s people still retain the essence of China and oriental China lingers on in them, in the rural areas at least, because it is still alive in their memories. Even if some areas like Beijing have left the old behind and moved onto the new, this diversity in the country makes it even more fascinating to explore and discover.

How is China “Sold” to potential tourists?

The Stereotypical view of a country is often how is it “sold” to potential tourists visiting.  Stereotypes are seen exploited in travel magazines because people are familiar with the images that “represent” the country or that they would associate with the country. If we associate a country with certain images then of course that is what we expect if were to visit it. Travel brochures are full of images that would be considered stereotypical to give people a taste of what they are buying or rather giving people “what the want”.

When asked about China people mentioned several different aspects about the country from the food to the people and places. There was a contrast I noticed. People would either describe a “rural” image of China of the rice fields with  farmers wearing traditional hats and the historical landmarks such as The Great Wall of China. This then contrasted the other image of China people had in mind, describing China as being filled with tall skyscrapers and being very advanced in technology and science. It is no surprise that there is such a contrast as it is such a big country which has all the above. More often than not it is the rural image of China that is featured in travel brochures however as it is a culture so different from others, and that is it’s selling point.

The image captured in tourist brochures of China  that I gathered, are of idyllic places filled with culture and ancient history. Often advertising tours to different locations and deals visiting popular landmarks and going on site seeing “adventures” (that are all planned out  in a day to day itinerary).  Although the historical areas are emphasized more as desirable places to visit, there is no denying that China is a vast country that has more than just its “mighty past” to offer. The images in the brochures are of  The Great Wall of China, Terracotta warriors, giant pandas, calm scenery and people in traditional garments and only a few images of an “east meets west” theme of the metropolises cities that are rising today. All very alluring images to entice many tourists each year to visit, though what is being portrayed in the brochures does not necessarily meet the image that a modern China wish to convey today. On the other hand there is the idea that if China is modernising then eventually it will look  like every other built up country, and what would attract the tourists in the future, if not its interesting unique history.

The images that are illustrated in the travel brochures do  not match the desires the country has to make China modern. Though this is not necisarly a bad thing however.  China’s challenge is to create a balance between their interesting and captivating traditions and ancient history with their  potentially thriving future. Preserving as much as they could would be ideal  to keep tourists visiting the country year after year to enjoy everything it has to offer, old and new. An example would be the Hutongs in China, narrow streets/alleyways which  there are traditional courtyard housing (siheyuan), that are being demolished in order to create new roads and towering buildings. By taking away the “culture” of Hutongs have not only destroyed ancient buildings that are homed to families for generations but also disturbing communities and their day to day lives. Hutongs are such unique buildings and are an attraction to many tourists, destroying them all would be a great loss to the country.

A balance of tradition with modernity maybe difficult to achieve with a country that is so vast and developing so fast. It seems to be that the traditional aspects that are the selling points to tourists hence the stereotypical imagery that are being emphasised in the travel magazines, but this does not match the countries desires to make it modern.