Wednesday, July 27, 2011

China's Exploding Tourism Economy: Three Examples

Few things demonstrate the rapid rate of modernization and postmodern tourism consumption in China as does the rise in tourism activity and the country's tourism economy. I just returned from a couple of weeks in China attending a conference, a field trip and giving some guest lectures at a university.  

The trip took me to Zhangjiajie National Park in Hunan Province for a tourism conference, and post-conference field trip by tourist bus to the old city of Feng Huang (Phoenix) in Hunan Province, and to the city of Weihai in Shandong Province where I visited Shandong University.  Here are few comments on what I learned from each of these places.

The cable car at Zhangjiajie National Park, Hunan Province, China

(1) Zhangjiajie - This tourism conference is held every two years in different locations in China.  This was the seventh meeting, and the sixth one in a row that I have attended.  It was also the largest event yet, with almost 300 mainland Chinese participants.  We only had about 20 international participants, do I think to the poor global economy and the lack of Zhangjiajie's lack of international renown (though it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

More than ever before, I was amazed and pleased at the quality of research papers that Chinese students presented, as well as their increased English speaking capabilities.  I remember the first conference that I attended in Guilin in 2000, and the few painful efforts that a few Chinese scholars made to present in English.  By contrast, this year about half of the paper sessions were in English and half were in Chinese, giving international participants a wider range of sessions to attend than ever in the past.

Lesson: The quality of academic scholarship in China is growing rapidly, and the newest crop of students and lecturers will soon be making a significant mark internationally.

Tourists line up for the boat ride at Feng Huang old city in Hunan Province, China

(2) Feng Huang - On Google+ I commented that Feng Huang was a Chinese version of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany. This is both in terms of the atmosphere (old buildings renovated and filled with tourist-oriented shops and foods), and the masses of tourists that are found there during the peak summer season.  I had never heard of Feng Huang (Phoenix) before this conference, and the photos that I could find of it when I put the conference website together showed old buildings and almost no people! (see

First, it took us 7 hours, instead of four, by bus to get there due to the massive traffic jam as we approached the city.  The crowds in the old city (which is along a river and surrounded by a new city) were like Disneyland on a crowded summer weekend!  I had seen this in several popular tourist destinations in China in the past, including at Zhangjiajie National Park during a one-day conference field trip.  It seems that all of the top tourist attractions in China these days are overrun with tourists during the summer season. Most are on group tours, and, interestingly, many Chinese tourists also complain about the over crowded conditions.

Lesson: "Carrying capacity" has always had a very different meaning in China compared to other parts of the world.  As the world becomes ever more populated (approaching 7 billion), issues of capacity, visitor experience, and economic motivations will increase, and China's rapidly growing middle class may be at the cutting edge of this.

More photos of Fenghuang can be found here:

The "international beach" (popular with Russians) at Weihai, Shandong Province, China.

(3) Weihai - I have never seen a Chinese city like this one. It has a population of about 150,000 people (very small by Chinese standards) spread out along a series of long, sandy swimming beaches.  Traffic jams are almost non-existent, and the pace of life is much slower than in I am used to seeing in China. About a third of the people at breakfast at my Shandong University hotel were Russian families who come here from Siberia to enjoy the beach.

Speaking of China's growing wealth, however, I have never seen more constructions taking place in one location in my entire life of travel -- and that is saying a lot!  Almost all of the construction (90% perhaps) is for vacation homes and timeshares.  People from all over China, as well as from nearby South Korea, are wanting to buy a piece of life on the beach in Weihai. I really wonder what is going to happen over the coming few years as thousands of new vacation units (mostly apartments, but also some villas) come onto the market.  It seems like there will be a glut of units, which could push down prices and put a crunch on maintenance and upkeep.  One other issue is that the weather in Weihai, while great in the summer, is very windy in all of the other seasons, and very cold in winter!

Lesson 3: Never underestimate the ability of the real estate industry to sell paradise to tourists.  Weihai is the ultimate experiment in this, though I have heard that a similar real estate market is also found on Hainan Island in southern China.

More photos of Weihai can be found here:

As usual, China never ceases to amaze -- especially from a tourism perspective!