Of all the spots in the world that stimulate the yearning for travel, China traditionally stands head and shoulders as the premier Asian destination since it opened its gates 40 years ago. This comes as no surprise, as it offers variety as wide as its borders and allurements unlike anything on earth. It’s also not surprising that travel agents consistently pick China as their top-selling destination, constantly tweaking and adjusting their menus to meet the rapid changes within China.
Some of the offerings remain constant. Visitors generally want to experience China’s ultramodern cities while simultaneously sampling its timeless culture; Beijing and Xi’an, with their majestic imperial past and a revolutionary period of self-isolation that kept the country as a tourism backwater for more than 50 years, offer the latter. On the other hand, Shanghai, with its modern skyline and vibrant way of life, has become a model for Asian cities.
Changes are everywhere, pumped up by almost 30 years of unprecedented economic growth, leaving no way to avoid superlatives in describing China. With more than 1.3 billion people, it is the world’s most populous nation; it has the fastest growing economy in the world and its middle class is growing at a more rapid pace than elsewhere.
But scratch under its megacities and huge trade surplus, followed by the sticker shock of its real estate prices surpassing those of New York or London, and one finds China to be a land of leisure—something it does on its usual grand scale—with an assortment of destinations that awe and astound.
Most come just for a glimpse of its Great Wall, a landmark visited by nearly four million people every year where—again—superlatives seem inadequate: It’s more than 5,000 miles long, bisects 10 Chinese provinces and is accurately deemed one of the wonders of the world. Others visit Xi’an to gape at the greatest concentration of terracotta sculptures on earth. Indeed, the list of alluring destinations could fill an old-style telephone book.
You want tropical resorts? Try Hainan, generally considered China’s Hawaii. Mountains? The country has ranges that defy the imagination. Deserts? Venture into the arid terrain of the Gobi or Mongolia.
Weijian Luo, deputy director at the China National Tourist Office in Los Angeles, confirms that “China is a splendid country bestowed in abundant tourist resources with a combination of ancient treasures and modern wonders.”
He adds that it is one of the world’s most visited destinations for Americans: More than 1.15 million arrived in 2011.
“So vast is its territory and so varied its cultures,” Luo continues, “that one would have to spend a year to experience all its greatness.”
Luo adds that 2014 has been designated as “China Year of Ocean Tourism, as the National Tourism Administration focuses on ocean tourism and highlighting beach resorts, cruising and seaside activities.”
In line with this theme, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises has launched two new vessels—the Century Legend and the Century Paragon—that, with their new comfort and amenities, raise the bar for China river cruising.
Says Guy Young, Uniworld president, “We have upgraded our China program for 2013 with these new ships and a new line of five-star hotels throughout the country to ensure we deliver the absolute best accommodations and amenities the region has to offer.”
The company has unveiled four new river cruises ranging from a 10-day cruise labeled Impressions of China and the Yangtze (from $3,299 pp to $3,599, airfare not included) to 18-day China and the Yangtze (from $5,799 pp to $6,499 depending on the season; airfare not included) that provides a colorful perspective of the country from its majestic rivers.
On dry land, however, a majority of visitors usually don’t go beyond three of China’s greatest hits: Beijing, Xi’an and Pingyao. While Beijing’s time-tested all-stars are the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square, fresh attractions are drawing their share of tourists, including 798, a contemporary art district that’s something of a Chinese Soho, and the Olympic Village, a zone full of great restaurants and nightclubs.
Beijing is undergoing an unprecedented building boom in hotels and resorts. Even the shortest stroll through the capital reveals that the cement isn’t dry on some projects when new ones begin.
The new Four Seasons Beijing (rates from $325 per night for a deluxe room to about $600 for a suite) is a 313-room luxury palace that opened this fall to much fanfare. The property is located in the heart of Beijing’s Third Diplomatic District—Beijing’s epicenter of business and entertainment about a half-hour’s drive from the Forbidden City—and manages to blend ancient Chinese tradition with contemporary touches.
Guests traverse a wide facade patterned after the city’s old imperial palaces into a sky-lit atrium decorated with calligraphy art that seems to come to life.
According to Sanjiv Hulugalle, general manager, the hotel is “like city itself: a marriage of Chinese tradition with modern aesthetics.”
W Beijing – Chang’an is a sparkling, brand-new 340-room hotel that will open in early 2014 a few blocks from the Forbidden City. The property’s lush design reflects the new China and features an indoor pool, three restaurants and top entertainment in its lounges. The stunning city views alone make a stay in this property worthwhile.
While in the Beijing area, some will delight in older and more traditional establishments like Jinshanling, a hot springs resort near the Great Wall where Xiaotangshan Lake feeds thermal pools that both renew and mesmerize. The five-star Chunhuiyuan Resort (from approximately $180 dbl for a standard room, to about $640 for a suite, breakfast included) near the Mutianyu area of the wall offers both indoor and outdoor hot spring pools, along with first-rate accommodations and service.
Chunhuiyan has been popular since the 16th century when it became the resort of choice for Qing Dynasty nobles. Modern
travelers will find Jinshanling one of the more memorable destinations in China.
Beijing has also inaugurated train service to Taiyuan, jump-off point to the old walled city of Pingyao. The trip takes about four hours in a sparkling rail car and, since Pingyao lies roughly halfway between Beijing and Xi’an, those on their way to see the terracotta army will delight in the ancient city now full of small hotels and traditional tea houses.
But while these attractions are within the well-trodden tourist path, China’s lesser-known provinces are beginning to pull their share of visitors.
Beach lovers venturing into Hainan, China’s delightful tropical getaway, should consider Amantara Sanya Resort & Spa (from about $300 per night dbl for premier rooms to about $2,400 for a beachfront pool villa), the upscale resort company’s first property in China that opened in December. The 122-room and villa resort lies in a nook between the mountains and the South China Sea. Its suites and villas are decorated with luxurious fabrics, rain showers, teak furnishings and feature modern amenities.
The spa boasts the luxurious treatments for which Amantara is known and its restaurants serve authentic Hainan cuisine and
international dishes. There are regular guided trips to nearby Li villages for a first-hand look at the ancient culture and a laid-back atmosphere underscored with superb luxurious touches.
Farther inland, Zhangjiajie, a city of about 1.5 million in northern Hunan Province is rapidly stepping into the tourism spotlight.
According to Fan Si, account executive, Asia, for Partner Concepts, a Maryland-based full-service travel-marketing firm, Zhangjiajie was visited by “only about 8,000 North Americans in 2012” who came to experience the region’s raw beauty.
Says Russ Oquist, president of MG (Mongol Global) Tour Company, “Zhangjiajie is the best-kept secret of not only China, but one of the natural wonders of the world. The beauty is awe-inspiring and otherworldly. It is no wonder that when filmmakers were looking to illustrate a fantasy planet for [the film] ‘Avatar,’ they choose the amazing sandstone mountain range of Zhangjiajie. Very few Americans know about it and fewer have seen it. I have been there four times in the last 12 months and I’m already planning my next two trips guiding small groups. If you love nature and natural beauty you must include Zhangjiajie on your bucket list.”
MG offers a 17-day excursion from July 12-28 ($4,975 pp, land only) that stops in Beijing, Xi’an, Pingyao, Shanghai, Suzhou, Zhoizhuang and—of course—Zhangjiajie.
From their first glimpse of the towering limestone pillars of nearby Wulingyuan Scenic Area, those who set foot in Zhangjiajie will understand why this is China’s hottest destination: More than 3,000 jagged columns rise 3,500 ft., evidence of the power of an ocean that receded about 200 million years ago.
The area has aptly been labeled by a national TV network as one of the “10 places so strange they could be from outer space.”
Zhangjiajie is easily accessible by air from major cities in Mainland China as well as from Hong Kong (about $500 on Air China) and there’s no lack of accommodations.
Samantha Resort & Spa, about 17 miles from Zhangjiajie Airport, sits at the edge of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area at the foot of spectacular mountains and affording a panoramic view of the nearby lake. The resort is a 119-room hotel with 59 private villas. It’s the most spacious property in Zhangjiajie (from approximately $200 pp dbl for a deluxe room, to about $250 for a garden deluxe room) and its traditional Chinese architecture and garden-like surroundings are a flawless mixture of ancient charm and modern amenities.
According to Si, visitors this year will experience a first: “The opening of the world’s longest glass bridge. It has been constructed between the facing summits of a large canyon. The floor is laid with transparent glass giving an unobstructed and dizzying view of the river some 1,300 ft. below.” This is not an experience for acrophobes.
According to Mark Grundy, president of Wendy Wu Tours, which offers a plethora of tours to China, including Tibet and Hong Kong, Zhangjiajie is most definitely a hot ticket. “I think it’s going to be a very popular destination and we’re one of the major tour operators that actually has tours that go there. We not only sell the major highlights of China, but we get into the specialist areas that are unique.”
Wendy Wu Tours’ 25-day Dreams of Nature takes in Mt Huang, the Nine Villages Valley, the spectacular Li River and Zhangjiajie. Here, photo ops abound with limestone formations, subtropical forests, waterfalls, mountain ranges and drop-dead gorgeous valleys. Rates for the tour start at $5,390 pp all-inclusive from the U.S. And all-inclusive means just that, stresses Grundy, including doing all the legwork for the visa to China; the meals; international airfare; sightseeing; two escorts per group, etc.
Regina Cheng-Sheu, sales executive, SITA World Tours, says, “Since China tourism is at a high point, standards of service and the quality of hotels have improved dramatically. The influx of North Americans has created a demand for services unique to these travelers, making China more comfortable and accessible than ever. The country’s presence in the world economy means that more Chinese speak English than ever. Street signs are mostly in Chinese Romanization (Pingyin), as well as in simplified Chinese characters so Americans are able to read the signs and get around easily.”
She adds that it’s difficult to peg the demographics for those traveling to China, as SITA has booked trips for families with young children (“two and over”) to seniors more than 70 years old.
“China is a year-round destination,” she adds. “Although the most comfortable seasons are spring and fall. However, it’s advisable to avoid Oct. 1 through 10, as this is the yearly national holiday period for all Chinese.”
SITA’s newest tours include its Best of China (13 days, from $3,150 pp, land-only). The tour includes a cruise along the Yangtze with stops in Xi’an, Shanghai and Beijing; China Discovery, (11 days, from $1,895 pp, land-only) with stops in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai with an optional Hong Kong extension; and Highlights of China (from $2,380 pp, land-only) that adds Guilin to the previous destinations.
According to Cheng-Sheu, SITA “sells these tours on a group basis, but we also arrange private tours for clients who want a more personalized experience. Private touring in China is not terribly expensive and is a very feasible option for those who like their itineraries with a bit more freedom.”
The Mongolia Express might be SITA’s most outre tour. This land-only package (starting from $2,199 pp) is an 8-day exploration of the Mongolian plains and visits Ulaanbaatar, Eisen Tasarhal, Harhorin and Hustai National Park. It’s ideal for those who want a taste of China’s remoteness.
Asia Transpacific Journeys is offering a wide selection of new trips that reveal all the allure of China, a country where the company has become a well-established tourism presence.
Kelly Reed, Asia Transpacific Journey’s marketing director is bullish on China: “It’s difficult to overstate the influence the country has on most, if not all, cultures of the East. Today, it is a pioneering mix of the classic and the remote. Travelers should visit its pulsating, modern cities then journey far into the countryside to meet traditional tribal peoples practicing a time-honored way of life.”
In keeping with that philosophy, Asia Transpacific Journeys offers a very attractive 20-day package (from $7,500 pp, land-only) that not only includes all the major attractions of Beijing and Xi’an, but visits Lijiang to visit local villages, continues to Zhongdian (Shangri-la) to explore monasteries, hikes through the surrounding terrain and includes lunch with a Tibetan family.
After a stop in Kunming, the tour moves on to Yangshuo where guests are given the opportunity to bicycle through the Li River banks to watch villagers fish with cormorants, one of Asia’s more unforgettable experiences, before continuing to Ping An to hike through the grand Dragon Spine Rice terraces.
Reed adds: “Since China is mobilizing and building at a frenetic pace, travelers should visit and explore China during this seismic cultural uplift.”
According to Aberdeen Tours, meanwhile, a must-book for clients who’ve been there, done that is Wuzhen, a watertown crossed by the Grand Canal. If you’re not familiar with the destination, go to wuzhen.com.cn and look at those stunning images—its uniqueness astounds with ancient docks and waterside pavilions. Aberdeen Tours is offering a 10-day China Highlights itinerary that includes a couple of days in Wuzhen. Visitors will stop in Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an, but it’s the time in Wuzhen that really captivates us. The tour operator stresses that it’s a must to experience Wuzhen’s outdoors at night. “You will feel like you’re walking in a picture: obscure streetlamps, winding lanes, creaking boats on
rivers, leisurely passers-by…. Also there are local opera shows every night,” they state. The time in Wuzhen includes visits to its Dongzha area, with the Hundred Beds Museum, Folk Custom Museum, Sanbai Wine Workshop and Woodcarving Museum, as well as sightseeing in the Xizha area, whose main attractions are the Foot-binding Museum, Foliage Dyeing, Old Post Office, Water Stage, and the Hengyitang Drugstore. There’s also the opportunity to take a boat cruising on the Grand Canal. Rates start at $1,485 pp, land-only.
One of the newest hotels in Wuzhen, incidentally, opened last year, the Dockside Boutique Hotel, located in the West Scenic Zone, adjacent to Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. The 96-room boutique-style hotel offers lake views and chic Chinese decor.
Beijing Capital International Airport is the major point of entry for the People’s Republic of China and a major Asian hub for a large number of U.S.-based airlines with direct, nonstop flights. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines offer direct service to Beijing from both east and west coasts and from Chicago. California-based Virgin America and Air China, meanwhile, recently signed a partnership offering seamless travel across their respective North American and Asian routes. Air China passengers may connect from any Virgin American city to Beijing and beyond via San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York.
shoppers, take your mark
Chic Outlet Shopping—luxury outlet shopping—is coming to China, with the Suzhou Village scheduled to open in early 2014 on the western shore of Yangcheng Lake. Perhaps you’ve heard of Chic Outlet Shopping with its nine shopping villages sprinkled throughout Europe, including the Bicester Village in London, the La Roca Village in Barcelona and the Wertheim Village in Frankfurt. What the Suzhou Village brings to China is a place for your shopping diva clients to snap out their credit cards at high-end fashion and lifestyle boutique stores that offer authentic previous seasons’ collections at year-round savings of up to 60 percent (and sometimes more) on the recommended retail price. The best part? It’s easy to include as an add-on to most tours of China as the village will be served by two high-speed rail lines connecting Shanghai to Nanjing and Beijing.
For more information, visit chicoutletshopping.com.
Aberdeen Tours: aberdeentours.com
Amantara Sanya Resort & Spa: sanya.anantara.com
Asia Transpacific Journeys: (800) 642-2742; asiatranspacific.com
China National Tourist Office: (888) 760-8218; cnto.org
Chunhuiyuan Resort: chunhuiyuan.cn
Dockside Boutique Hotel: wuzhen.com.cn
Four Seasons Beijing: (800) 819-5053; fourseasons.com
MG Tour Company: (866) 225-0577; mongolglobaltours.com
Samantha Resort & Spa: samantharesortspa.com
SITA World Tours: (800) 421-5643; sitatours.com
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises: (800) 868-7905; uniworld.com W Beijing – Chang’an: (877) 946-8357; starwoodhotels.com
Wendy Wu Tours: (877) 993-6399; wendywutours.com