China No Longer a Sleeping Dragon

In China, everything is very big. Territorially, it stretches more than 3,000 miles from the western shores of the Pacific Ocean across the face of Asia. Its population numbers some 1.6 billion people. And its inbound visitor count is skyrocketing. In less than a decade, China’s travel market has nearly doubled to more than 26.4 million foreign visitors in 2009 (excluding Hong Kong and Macau), compared with 14.6 million in 2001. According to Xinhong Zhang, director of the China National Tourist Office in New York, from January through September this year, China welcomed 15.85 million visitors, 1.5 million from the U.S., for an overall increase of 18 percent over the same period last year.

Well, the world’s biggest nation must be doing things very right. For the fifth straight year, China is the Best Selling Destination in Asia in Recommend’s Readers’ Choice Awards. It now woos visitors with a full schedule of nonstop flights from a half-dozen U.S. gateways to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and on the ground, hotels are bursting out all over. Responding to both domestic and international demand, U.S. chains continue to rush into the China market, transforming urban areas and fueling the exploding travel market. Granted, for many years there have been trophy hotels—Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, and Park Hyatt in Beijing. However, others such as Marriott and Hilton, InterContinental and Starwood continue the development of glitzy five-star properties on prime locations in gateway cities. More recently arrived are U.S.-based international chains such as aloft, Courtyard by Marriott, and Four Points by Sheraton, all attracting investors in second- and third-cities such as Tianjin in northeastern China and Hangzhou near the Yangtze River Delta. China hands point out that it is worth searching out some of the traditional gems among local accommodations, such as Han’s Royal Garden Hotel, occupying a series of five courtyards that have been painstakingly resorted into a luxury hotel in one of Beijing’s most charming neighborhoods.

The average stay for visitors from the U.S is, according to Zhang, 10 to 12 days. And for the American market, the big four attractions are Beijing and its cornucopia of imperial sights; Xian’s terracotta warriors; cosmopolitan Shanghai and its surrounding water towns, and the Yangtze River cruises whose highlights are the Three Gorges Dam, the small gorges of Daning River, and life along the mainstream itself. Zhang recommends that, “Americans who love Yangtze River cruising should consider leaving a couple of days at each end to explore Chongqing—your place for the Giant Panda Encounter, as well as a trip to the Buddhist grottoes at Dazu—and Wuhan—with an excursion to monasteries on the most sacred of Taoist mountains, Wudang.

Looking ahead to repeat visitor interests, Zhang points out that the Yangtze River, the world’s third longest, feeds a region enjoying some of China’s most beautiful scenery and cultural treasures, particularly in the provinces of northern Sichuan, whose base for exploring is Chengdu, and northern Hunan, with Changsha as a base. Repeat travelers will also want fly to Guilin in the southwest, transferring via a Li River cruise to the rural retreat of Yangshuo. Excursions from here by boat and bike feature stunning scenery to traditional villages and markets. Obviously in a country as large—geographically, historically and culturally—as China, there can be a lifetime full of repeat journeys.