China's travel industry will shift focus from the country's places to its people this year, according to a recent announcement by the China National Tourism Office (CNTO). "China Culture Tour 2011" is its theme this year and, "Travel to appreciate and experience Chinese culture" is its new slogan.
Responding to the call from the government body charged with promoting inbound tourism, travel companies have been scrambling to cultivate itineraries that go beyond visiting scenic areas to engaging the cultures that inhabit them.
China, which has long been Asia's top destination, recently overtook Spain to become the world's third most visited country, after the United States and France, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The UNWTO said last March that it expects the country to seize the top spot by 2015.
China received 134 million inbound tourists last year, a 5.8 percent year-on-year increase. Tourism foreign exchange earnings reached $45.8 billion, a 15.5 percent increase over 2009, according to figures from the China National Tourism Administration, under which the CNTO operates.
Japan contributes the most tourists at 3.318 million last year. While about 40 percent come on business, the number of culture-seekers is growing, Japan Tourism Marketing Co senior consultant Yoko Hayano says.
David Deng, marketing manager of Chinatravel.com, the website of China International Travel Service, Guilin Co, Ltd, says his company has developed more cultural options.
"Cultural travel experiences, such as learning kungfu, cooking and language ... will be one of the most popular travel themes this year," he says.
China Odyssey Tours has piloted a cultural immersion project for foreign guests in Zhejiang's provincial capital Hangzhou. The China Educational Tour fuses taiji martial arts and cooking classes with factory and school visits.
"Sightseeing is just one branch of travel. Cultural experience is the root," the company's promotions specialist Zhang Yuan says.
Zhang says that "traveling deeper" will be another hallmark of inbound travel this year. She explains this as going beyond the longstanding icons - Beijing, Shanghai, Shaanxi's provincial capital Xi'an and the Guanxi Zhuang autonomous region's Guilin city.
"Take Guizhou province - it's still relatively undiscovered by Western tourists but features extensive natural resources and colorful ethnic culture," Zhang says.
She points out that the province hosts a plethora of obscure yet "amazing" festivals - the Hmong new year celebrations in ethnic Miao villages; Fanjing Mountain's International Tent Festival; Caohai Wetland's International Birding Festival; the International Cave Festival at the Zhijin Cave Museum; and the National Traditional Ethnic Minority Sports Meet in the provincial capital Guiyang.
"This year offers such a great opportunity to reveal these wonders to the world," Zhang says, noting that several locations previously unheard-of overseas are gaining acclaim with foreign tourists because of their cultural offerings.
The New York Times, she points out, named Hangzhou and Shanxi province's Pingyao among "the most travel-worthy cities of 2011". These destinations "were previously even less well known than Suzhou and Lijiang," Zhang says.
Chinatour.com International Inc president Bo Wang says outside interest in the country's culture has grown with its global prominence.
"People from overseas witness this change and become more interested in Chinese culture," he says. "They talk about China every day, everywhere in the world. They want to experience the changes in China for themselves and see them with their own eyes."
(China Daily 02/20/2011 page3)