Travel agencies and tour guides in the Diqing Tibetan autonomous prefecture, reeling from reports over abusive tour guides, will have more government oversight as part of the nation's new tourism law, officials said.
Less than a week after the law took effect, a video was released on Oct 6 showing a tour guide in Shangri-La, capital of Diqing, mistreating visitors two months earlier. The news from the travel paradise in northwestern Yunnan province roused attention from the province's top leadership.
In the video, 33-year-old Zhang Tao angrily and forcibly removed a tourist - an undercover CCTV reporter - from the bus and left him stranded on the side of the road after the tourist refused to pay 100 yuan ($16) to visit a Tibetan family near Shangri-La. The tourist filed a complaint, and Zhang was fined 5,000 yuan and his guide certificate was suspended.
The new national tourist law, which took effect on Oct 1, addresses problems that have plagued the tourism industry and aroused public anger, such as steep unexpected price hikes, forced shopping trips and other unwelcome expenses.
The past Golden Week holiday saw a record 278,400 visitors to Diqing, bringing 76.74 million yuan into the prefecture and making it one of the top three travel destinations in Yunnan.
Three days after the scandal broke, Liu Quan, deputy head of the Diqing prefecture government, summoned more than local 600 officials and travel agents to a meeting where he told them to learn from the incident and further promote travel routes and related services in the prefecture.
"Diqing, famous for the Shangri-La-related culture and sceneries, has a natural advantage in its landscape, Buddhist culture and Tibetan customs," he said.
Diqing Party chief Zhang Dengliang said the incident reminded local authorities of the problems with developing the local tourism industry, and it gave local officials an opportunity to correct those shortcomings.
"Even though Diqing's tourism resources are an advantage, the service must be improved to satisfy everyone coming to the plateau, or the advantage won't be sustainable," Zhang Dengling said in an interview with China Daily.
Before the new law, tour guides didn't have wages or social security, and they had to make a living by shepherding tourists to events such as shopping trips and Tibetan-family visits.
Zhang Tao, the tour guide in the video, said he was under great pressure to earn some modest income by having travelers visit Tibetan families.
"We had to pay the Tibetan family 25 yuan from the 100 yuan each tourist paid. The driver and the guide from Kunming (the provincial capital) also got part of it," he said. "It meant I could earn only about 25 to 30 yuan from each traveler. That was the only income for a lower-status guide like me."
The ticket to visit a Tibetan family for two hours and experience their family life costs 45 yuan. Zhang said he asked 100 yuan per tourist because otherwise he would get nothing for his day's work.
A local industry insider who requested anonymity said the travel market in Diqing has to be overhauled to create a better environment in Yunnan.
"Anyone who has a guide certificate is allowed to take a travel group. There should be a standard for all the charges to the visitors," he said.
In Diqing, 2,480 guides employed by 25 travel agencies provide services, including 873 star-rated ones. According to the tourism bureau, tourism guides have to be tested annually.
Zhang, a one-star guide, was eligible to lead only inexpensive tours, such as the 300-yuan tour on Aug 6 that got him in trouble. The tourism law gives tour guides the right to be paid wages, including social security, by travel agencies.
"Before the Tourism Law, guides didn't have any payment, and their income mainly came from the profit from the extra visits," the insider said.
Sun Hongjun, director of the Diqing Tourism Bureau, said all tour guides have been told to carry recording equipment, and a surveillance monitoring system will be installed in the tourist service center if any disputes happen or complaints are filed.
Meanwhile, the Diqing Tourism Bureau called on 20 travel agencies to publicize the new law and required it be strictly followed.
On April 10, Diqing set up a system to check the security of tourists and also how the service can better serve visitors. In the first six months, the tourism bureau received 11 complaints, a decrease of 83 percent compared with the same period last year. During the National Day Golden Week holiday, no complaints were filed.
The sparsely populated prefecture actually poses a challenge for the tourism management in Diqing, which covers 23,870 square kilometers, said Sun, the tourism bureau director.
"The prefecture tourism bureau and all the tourism officials in the three counties - Shangri-La, the Weixi Lisu autonomous county and the Deqen Tibetan autonomous county - have fewer than 110 people. The incident also showed that we are severely shorthanded, and so the prefecture government has made a decision to give 30 additional positions in the management system all over the prefecture," Sun said.
The bureau will be upgraded to a commission, with more administrative power, he added.
According to the prefecture government, the tourism bureau will have all tourism officials trained on Friday afternoons by the end of this year. "We will also send all the tourism officials to Beijing and Shanghai for 10 to 30 days of training to learn from their experience for better services," Sun said.
The local industry insider applauded the moves.
"It's good to hear some changes will be made, and we'll see the consequences. But one thing remains unchanged: Shangri-La still is a popular destination for travelers, and we hope they will have a better time when they come here after the new measures are introduced," the insider said.
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Guo Anfei contributed to this story.