JANUARY 2011 COVER FEATURE
Beijing Your Way
By Marian Goldberg
In the last several years, so many experiential travel companies and specialty guides have started businesses in China that visitors can uncover truly unique and in-depth cultural experiences no matter the length of their stay. Since the 2008 Olympics, Beijing in particular has seen an explosion in special interest travel, and I decided to check this out personally.
Beijing by Motorcycle Side-car
Frenchman Yves du Parc, Vice President and General Manager of Beijing Sideways, parked his motorcycle on the street and showed up on time (no traffic jams for the motor bike) to meet at my hotel. He sized my helmet and adjusted my lap belt in the side car of his Chang Jiang (literally "the long river") motor bike, took my photo, and hopped onto his seat. Then he turned the key in the ignition, and we were off. I had traveled through Beijing many times before, mostly in the back seat of a taxi, but this was my first motorcycle experience ever! I was thrilled to feel the wind on my face as we zipped through Beijing's new Central Business District or CBD and I got up close to the phenomenal new skyscrapers. I snapped photos of The Park Hyatt tower, the Jianwai Soho Center, and the copper-colored Reignwood Building connected to the Fairmont Hotel by its distinctive “Sky Bridge.” I marveled at the Prospect Center, one of Beijing’s new “green” buildings, and The Place retail complex with its 820x98 ft. LED “Skyscreen” that is suspended from six stories (80 feet). We whisked past the China World Trade Center, the country’s tallest building, and the and the CWTC3. I was blown away by Reem Koolhaas’ CCTV building, a non-traditional arch-like tower with the nick name “Boxer Shorts.” I shot blurry, moving photographs of the SOHO Guanghua, intriguing with its white panels sloping at various angles and circular windows sitting next to other colorful circular panels, all enhanced by street level semi-circular entrances and doorways. Speaking loudly over the street noise, Yves explained how SOHO stands for “Small Office Home Office,” and Guanghua Lu is the area’s major east-west thoroughfare.
We continued past the Ancient Ming Dynasty Observatory (circa 1442), now called the Ancient Astronomical Instruments Display Hall, situated at the southeast corner of Beijing's Jianguomen Bridge and on to the hutong alleyways of the ChongWenMen district, named for the gate that was once part of Beijing's city wall but was torn down in the 1960’s to make room for the Second Ring Road. We drove through the Gulou hutongs in the area of the Drum and Bell towers—one of the oldest monuments in Beijing—as well as the most famous hutong, Nanluoguxiang. We also explored Beiluoguxiang, Fangijia hutong, and Dongsi liutiao. We slowly motored through a food market hidden in a typical old hutong on Liuxie Street, a few hundred yards south of Tiananmen Square. Taking the motorcycle through the hutongs was truly a highlight. We got up close enough to actually watch old men playing Mahjong or checkers; kids tossing balls, eating ice cream from street vendors, or riding around in toy tractors; and old men and women just walking around in their pajamas, as they view the streets as their yard. In fact, the streets were so narrow that we got stuck behind a small van (which wasn’t supposed to be there) that could not turn one of the street corners. Yves got off the motorcycle to help hand turn the van with some of the residents. This actually turned out to be a great way to meet the locals.
Following the hutongs, we drove to a Pearl Market called Hongqiao. We parked the motorbike and hopped off. Inside, we meandered our way through the stalls with vendors shouting to me in broken English about some great deals on their handbags, shoes, and household items. An escalator to the third floor led us to where discount pearls and pearl jewelry are sold. Proceeding onward to a back corner stairway, we headed up one more level, where only the finest pearl jewelry was for sale. Another small entrance provided direct access to a “secret” rooftop terrace and garden. It was a glorious, private, panoramic view of Beijing, with the CBD in the distance to the west and a clear view of the main tower of the 600 year-old Temple of Heaven to the east. We could also see the southern Chinese Gate of Tiananmen Square.
I thought the rooftop garden was the conclusion of the tour, but I was wrong. For next came a lovely ride along the Houhai Lakes, north of Tiananmen Square, which had been dug in the Yuan Dynasty (14th century) to berth barges from the Grand Canal and bring goods from around China and beyond to the Emperor in his nearby Forbidden City. The leafy, once-Bohemian neighborhood, now lined with chic and trendy bars, boutiques, restaurants and tourist Pedi-cabs, was just a drive-by en route to our last attraction, the NCPA: Beijing Opera House, affectionately called “The Egg.” Here, we once again parked the motor bike and got out to take a closer look. Newly completed in 2007, the 130,000 square foot, ultra modern elliptical dome of titanium and glass seats 5,452 people in three halls. It was designed by French architect Paul Andreu, who surrounded it with an artificial lake. Lit at night, it provides a dramatic contrast to the nearby 1959 formal Soviet-style Great Hall of the People, designed by Zhang Bo, where legislative and ceremonial activities are held.
This two-hour tour was all I had time for, but Beijing Sideways also offers full-day and over-night motorcycle side-car trips to the Great Wall, which include hiking and a first-quality French picnic atop one of the wall towers. Here, Canadian Jacques Mc Neil, found it so romantic that he told me he actually proposed to his girlfriend atop the tower—far away from the tourist throngs.
Beijing Sideways has five full-time “Insider Guides” and two part-time guides. They speak English, French, Spanish, Romanian, Dutch, German and Chinese. They have taken honeymoon couples to groups as large as 80 conference participants. So far, their oldest guest was 86, but they have even taken six-month-old babies on the city tours.
Beijing Culinary Safari
British food writer Tom O’Malley came to Beijing in September 2008 to learn the Chinese language and the language of Chinese food. In March 2009, he became the dining editor of the local English-language daily, The Beijinger, and in June 2010, he left to pursue his freelance career and to begin offering culinary safaris around Beijing. Tom explains that because Beijing is a Political Center, it is a melting pot for all the provincial governments and their cuisines. Each government’s capitol headquarters brought along its own regional chef, who set up a restaurant in the hotel in which the provincial diplomats stayed. In a short time, provincial food exploded around the city, and now residents and visitors can enjoy food from every corner of China, right in Beijing. In fact, there are over 40,000 restaurants in the city!
Tom encourages visitors to explore the rich diversity of ubiquitous street food snacks called Xiao Cho or “little eats,” which have been available on Beijing streets for hundreds of years. It is the Beijing Muslim minority or “Hui,” who are responsible for many of these snacks that are not well known overseas. They are mainly located around Niu Jie, meaning “Ox Street,” where there is a colorful Muslim market selling lamb dumplings (since they don’t eat pork), all imaginable parts of sheep, sweets made of sweet sticky rice and lots of vegetable and lamb hot pots.
Hutong area restaurants are brightly lit, and drinking is a big deal. Locals enjoy a vodka-strong rice wine liquor called Bai Jiu (literally “white alcohol”) that is very cheap—about $2 for a half liter. There is lots of shouting and throwing of lamb sticks on the floor. In general, the restaurants in Beijing’s hutongs can offer some of the best food in the city, and a whole meal can often cost just $3 to $4. However, in order to make sure that the place is clean, it’s often a good idea to get a recommendation or go with a guide like Tom. When I dined with Tom and several other food writers this August, we ate at Qin Hua, on Meishuguan and enjoyed: tossed dry-rice noodles, pickled vegetables with black sesame-stuffed sticky rice balls, sour chilies, fried bamboo shoots, Guizhou style Laziji chicken with taro cubes, sour chili fried sea bass, and sour tomato soup—all for about ten dollars per person.
Upscale restaurants with big name chefs are also a growing trend, and it seems every hotel in Beijing has its special weekend Champagne brunch. Tom recommends the Westin Financial Street as the best. Additionally, while it’s not so easy to find a good Beijing signature Peking Duck, there are a few good locations, and Tom has some suggestions.
Time for Tea
Joel Schuchat hails from Montreal’s Jewish quarter, where he observed a “bizarre infatuation with Chinese food.” After finishing culinary school, he headed straight for Asia, and ended up in Beijing to learn more about Chinese food, language and tea. In 2005, he began a tea import-export business, through which he really got to know the ins and outs of “Maliandao,” Beijing’s tea district. His tours were a natural outgrowth of this; “There are so many stories to share, so many different angels. How is tea priced? How it is sourced? How should it be paired with food?” Joel tells me he likes dark chocolate with robust green tea.
Joel helps guests select tea, educates them on properly tasting teas, and offers behind the scenes insight into the tea growing regions of China and the world. He even talks about the history of tea, offers facts about the tea tree, as the single source for all types of teas worldwide, and introduces medical details such as weight loss and caffeine content.
Generally, the tour begins at 10 am at a tea shop that specializes in unique and famous green teas from a region in Anhui province. Afterwards, Joel guides guests through several of the main tea buildings to check out what is or is not going on. From here, they end up at another smaller location that specializes only in one type of Oolong from Chaozhou city, Guangdong province. After a few dozen shots of tea, everyone is usually starving, so they head for lunch. Once everyone is done with lunch, they continue walking towards the largest tea wholesaling building and stop at the last location to taste a few more of Joel’s favorite teas. By 3-3:30, everyone has had enough tea, and they are left alone to browse the shops, and Joel shows them who and what to trust in the area.
For lunch Joel takes them to a hidden North-Western Fujian restaurant run by a lovely family. The place is a gem in the rough, hidden amidst the huge tea market. Says Joel, “You can’t find it on your own, and guests often leave after marking the GPS coordinates on their cell phone.” They source many of their ingredients from their hometown on a weekly basis. Even though the place is completely nondescript, even a bit grungy, the food is just exceptional quality, and its nice to be able to blow people away with food on a walking tour that doesn't specifically have food as its focus. The tour, including lunch, costs less than $35 per person.
Hiking and Biking, Art & Outdoors
Australians Naomi Skinner and Scott Spencer founded Bike Asia in Guangxi province, China in 2003 after years of experience working in adventure travel. This January they will launch Beijing and Great Wall stand-alone trips, in addition to their longer country-wide travel programs. One interesting bicycle theme tour explores the Guan Yuan Pet Market. Other theme tours visit the homes of a couple of the old masters with a look at their private art, antiques, and furniture collections, while still others travel through the hutongs or visit the HouHai Lake region or explore and interpret the Forbidden City in terms of its Feng Shui. Bike Asia also drives guests out to a remote location of the Great Wall for a three-hour Great Wall bicycle trip.
Additionally, Bike Asia is launching several full day arts-oriented car or van trips. In the morning they will explore Beijing’s modern architecture and in the afternoon they will visit the 798 Arts District where participants will actually meet a couple of the local big name artists.
One particularly popular Bike Asia’s guide has his own small hiking and biking business. Hong Gao is a local Beijinger, in his mid-30s, who lived in Silicon Valley, California for several years working in IT. He decided to come back to China, and actually rode his bicycle from Beijing to Vienna. This experience led him to be interested in tourism. In addition to biking through the hutongs on his own, Hong offers a 6.2 mile Dragon Backbone Night Walk along the Central Axis of Beijing; the Beijinger’s Temple of Heaven, showcasing the lives of ordinary Beijingers—explaining their morals and visiting the world heritage Temple of Heaven with a traditional Chinese exercise session—and an Ice Hiking tour in winter only. Hong was also recommended by the Opposite House, Beijing’s chic and boutique Swire Hotel.
Zach Chen is a Chinese American, native of Chicago, who was a Wildland Firefighter in Idaho and is now one of the principal guides for another company, Beijing Hikers. Beijing Hikers offers scheduled (8 to 30 participants) and private hikes in and around Beijing. Some of their unique hiking locations include: cultural studies of temples in the countryside, a hike to a cave where people hid out when they were fighting the Japanese during World War II, a Chinese New Years’ hike including a dumpling making contest, and a Valentine’s Day hike to a hot spring resort. Another Beijing Hiking Leader, Sun Huijie is a fine artist and photographer, and she leads art related hike/tours to museums, galleries and public art spaces.
All these tours truly reveal a unique side of Beijing, demonstrating what a fascinating city it is. Scott Spencer of Bike Asia summed up the real reason to visit Beijing and take part in one or more of these experiences as follows, “China is probably one of the most dynamic places in the world at the moment. There is so much happening it is difficult to keep up. The contrasts couldn't be more dramatic with the modern China to the little changed rural areas we visit. Culturally it is a puzzle that is a delight to try to solve knowing that you never will. The landscapes and cycling are relatively unknown and incredibly impressive. I enjoy myself everyday.
For further information, contact the China National Tourist Office at 212-760-8218; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.cnto.org
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW by Ryley Hartt
Ms. Xinhong Zhang, Director of the China National Tourist Office in New York
Shanghai in the Limelight
Fresh off the success of hosting the largest professional travel show in Asia, Ms. Xinhong Zhang, Director of the China National Tourist Office in New York sat down with us to reflect on the highlights from 2010 and offer a glimpse at her plans for 2011.
Shanghai hosted two major events this year, the World Expo 2010 Shanghai and China International Travel Mart. Can you comment on the relative success of these events and the impact they had on Shanghai and the promotion of tourism to China?
From my personal point of view, these two events are different from each other. The first is a national event with the participation of most of the countries in the world and international organizations. The World Expo is excellent for my home country, exposing China on a global stage to be experienced and known by everyone, which helps to promote access to China and the service industry in China. The second is a national travel industry event that consolidates and enhances the awareness of China as a tourist destination in Asia and in the world. CITM has put China’s travel industry on the world tourism stage and sent a welcoming message to visitors from all the corners of the world.
These two events both took place in Shanghai this year, which was very valuable for Shanghai and its neighboring areas. Shanghai’s city government and its people did a good job.
Did either of these events help the tourism industry to identify target markets or special interest groups that might be helpful in your planning for next year?
Our regular market consists mostly of visitors who are 50 and up. Our biggest special interest market is college students, which is on the rise due to exchange programs among universities of the two countries. The second special interest is the cruise market. We have built a couple of ports in recent years to accommodate ocean cruises along the eastern coast of China. The golf market is also important for us and we have developed very quickly in this segment with golf courses spreading out across the country.
Are there any emerging attractions or destinations to report on?
Yes, the secondary cities will be promoted in the U.S. market, in addition to the first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guilin, Guangzhou and the Yangtze river cruises.
These secondary cities are those of Dalian, Tianjin, Qingdao, Hangzhou, Nanjin; Xiamen in the east coast of China; the inland cities of Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunmin and Lhasa, which are also the hub cities to explore the southwestern areas of China. Among these cities, there are more and more new international hotels and resorts.
Can you give us an update on some of the new hotels you’re seeing?
As of May 2010, there are 7,847 hotels rated from one star to five star. Among the total number, there are 340 five-star hotels, 1,314 four-star hotels and 3,368 three-star hotels. New hotels are currently going up in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao, Hangzhou, Chongqing and Sanya, among others.
Is there any new flight service from the U.S. since this time last year?
China’s major carriers like Air China, China Eastern, China Southern and Hainan airlines are serving between China and the U.S. on a daily basis, starting from the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Seattle.
U.S. carriers like United, Delta and American all have daily flights from different U.S. cities to China starting from New York, Newark, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington DC.
What upcoming events should travel agents and visitors mark on their calendars?
For trade events, China International Travel Mart is recommended for tour operators. CITM is an annual event that is held in Shanghai and Kunming alternatively. As the largest professional travel mart in Asia, CITM has drawn the attention of people in the tourism industry worldwide. Participants in CITM come from all sectors of the travel industry including international and domestic tourist organizations, travel agencies, hotels, airlines and related travel companies. The CITM Organizing Committee is sparing no effort to invite, through various channels, buyers with strong competitiveness from China (including Hong Kong SAR, Macao SAR, and Taiwan Province) and other countries and regions in the world to participate in the mart. Strict participation conditions and invitation procedures will guarantee the quality of buyers, so that the participants will surely enjoy the great benefit at CITM. Professional trade days will be arranged exclusively for registered delegates to ensure value in participation in CITM. For the year of 2011, CITM will be held in Kunming October 27 - 30.
Agents can contact the China National Tourist Office at 212-760-8218; email@example.com; or visit www.cnto.org
China’s Hotel Boom Continues
By Marian Goldberg
In July, JAX FAX highlighted China’s current and ongoing hotel boom, specifically the vast number of upscale hotels opening in Shanghai in conjunction with the World Expo, being hosted from May 1 through October 31. More recently, I was able to visit and learn about even more hotels, some brand new and others currently under development, in Beijing and other mainland cities.
Arrival Into Beijing
Touching down in Beijing, the Langham Place Beijing Capital Airport (http://beijingairport.langhamplacehotels.com) had been on a “soft open” for five days when I arrived on August 30. The 372 rooms and suites were hip and welcoming, but the five fab restaurants: Ming Court (Cantonese), Fuel (casual dining), Toroko (Japanese), The Place (international), Portal Work & Play (Wifi lounge) were slated to open on September 1st. A special 25%-off early booking rate for bookings made minimum 14 days in advance is in effect through December 31 for stays through August 30, 2011.
Across the street, the Hilton Beijing Capital Airport and Conference Center (www1.hilton.com) opened on July 28, 2010. The 324-room property, located at the Star Alliance Terminal # 3, operates free 24-hour hotel-airport shuttle bus service every 15 minutes to Terminal 3 and every 30 minutes to Terminals 1 and 2. This was the first international five-star business and convention airport hotel in China. It features: two ballrooms, 21 meeting rooms, a fitness center, luxury spa, and 25 meter heated in-door swimming pool with stunning views over the terminal. Its seven restaurants include: 360 (international dining with live cooking stations), Compass Grill (steak and seafood), My China (Sichuan and Hunan cuisine), Yue Shang (Cantonese dining), Long Bar (“L-shaped” bar with live music or quieter lounge area), and The Point (lobby café). Don’t forget to choose your pillow.
Heading into downtown via one of Beijing’s very affordable taxis, I went to visit a property that is bit more unique. Joel Shuchat, a young expat and tea expert from Montreal, has amassed a team of muscular, provincial farmers to build a boutique hotel amidst Beijing’s old Baochao Hutong district. Normally referred to as the “drum and bell” area, it was until recently filled with cramped multifamily residences. Now it’s bustling with trendy craft shops, boutiques, and chic restaurants—especially along Nanluoguxiang, just south from Gulou East Street. I arrived and sat down in the central courtyard on a handmade stool, and joined 16 men and two women in a beer toast as they celebrated just having secured the cement roof over the brick exterior walls. The Orchid Hotel (www.theorchidbeijing.com), is set to open in mid-October 2010 and will feature: 4 standard rooms, 1 premium room with a “special view,” 3 rooms with private gardens, 1 luxury garden suite, and 1 premium luxury room with its own private roof terrace. Reservations are currently being accepted in Yuan, $US, and £, but Visa, MC and AMEX are coming soon.
Since Orchid was not yet opened, I chose to stay at the great-value Crowne Plaza Beijing (www.CrownePlaza.com), which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary on August 18, 2011. Highlights of my stay included their enclosed roof-top in-door heated swimming pool and Jacuzzi, spacious marble bathrooms, club lounge and lobby with complimentary Wifi, and the superb location right in the upscale Wangfunjing shopping district.
IHG Group Expands China Presence
The Crowne Plaza is a member of IHG Group, which was the first international hotel company to enter China, with the Holiday Inn Lido Beijing in 1984 (www.holidayinn.com). It is currently the largest international hotel group in Greater China, with 131 hotels (45,940 rooms) open and an additional 146 hotels (47,848 rooms) in the development pipeline. In 2010, IHG is welcoming 30 new hotels in China. In addition to the Intercontinental Shanghai Expo, mentioned in the July article, they opened the Intercontinental Nanjing (www.ichotelsgroup.com) which, at 450 meters, is the tallest building in that city.
In November 2010, IHG will open the 180-room Hotel Indigo Shanghai on the Bund as Asia’s first Hotel Indigo. The Indigo is located at the famous Pier 16 on the Huangpu River with the Expo site to the south.
Among the new Crowne Plaza properties is the Crowne Plaza Lijiang Ancient Town, which was just recognized as “China’s Best New Opening Theme Hotel of 2010” at the 7th Golden Pillow Award of China Hotels. The 5-star villa-style resort is set amidst 51,000 square miles of landscape with 10 themes and is located in Dayan Ancient Town, a UNESCO declared world cultural heritage site in Yunnan Province. China’s other newly opened or soon-to-open Crowne Plaza hotels include the: Crowne Plaza Shenyang Parkview, in Liaoning province, 391 miles East of Beijing, which opened in July 2010, and the following six hotels set to debut “soon”: Crowne Plaza Guangzhou City Centre in Guangzhou, Guangdong; Crowne Plaza Chongqing Riverside in Chongqing, Sichuan; Crowne Plaza Huizhou in Huizhou, Guangdong; Crowne Plaza Xiangfan in Xiangfan, Hubei; Crowne Plaza Nanchang Riverside in Nanchang, Jiangxi.
Other Beijing Hotel News
The Fairmont Beijing (www.fairmont.com/beijing) is continuing its “phased opening,” which began December 15, 2009. In third quarter 2010, it will open its Willow Stream Spa. Spanning three levels on the hotel’s “Sky Bridge,” the Willow Stream Spa will offer 12 treatment suites, complemented by a state-of-the-art fitness facility, yoga studio, and swimming pool (866-551-5659, BEI.firstname.lastname@example.org).
With 470 rooms and suites, the Sheraton Beijing Dongcheng Hotel (www.starwoodhotels.com) will open on the North 3rd Ring Road on May 1, 2011. Facilities include three restaurants; Chinese, Western, and All-Day-Dining; 13 meeting spaces totaling over 3,300 square meters; a spa, and indoor heated swimming pool and fitness gym. The hotel is already accepting group inquiries.
Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts (www.fourseasons.com) will open two hotels in Beijing. The first in the Chaoyang district will debut in late 2011 to early 2012 as part of a complex that will include four towers of hotel rooms, private apartments and offices. The hotel will feature more than 300 rooms, Chinese and Italian restaurants and several lounges, a full-service spa and fitness center, and comprehensive meeting spaces. The second to open in 2014 on Financial Street is planned as a 225-room hotel amid a complex that will also have commercial offices and residences. The Beijing openings are among new Four Seasons properties sprouting up across China, including: Hangzhou at West Lake in October 2010, Guangzhou in late 2010, Shanghai at Pudong in late 2011 (their second Shanghai property), Shenzhen in 2012, Qingdao in late 2013 to early 2014, Hainan at Shenzhou Peninsula also in late 2013 to early 2014, Hainan at Sanya in 2014, Suzhou in 2014, and Tianjin also in 2014.
For more information on China’s full-steam-ahead hotel development, contact the China National Tourist Office in New York at 888-760-8218, email@example.com or visit: www.cnto.org
Voluntourism in China
By Marian Goldberg
Teaching English, building roads, revitalizing schools, and protecting wildlife are not usually the first things that come to mind when most people think of romantic getaways. However, couples, families and even co-workers are rejuvenating their relationships or bonding as a corporate team as they work together on service projects overseas.
In China, tour operators, hotels and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) are offering volunteer opportunities to international travelers as an alternative way to create a personal and meaningful vacation. In Guizhou, a lush, rice-terraced and mountainous southern province, the tour operator WildChina (www.wildchina.com) offers their travelers the opportunity to work closely with Baibi Villagers to improve their school facilities and infrastructure, building a basketball court, stairs and bathrooms. They even incorporated assistance from a school group in Shanghai to help maintain the mountain roads that lead to their farmlands, and the tour participants routinely contribute to the Library at the Biasha School by donating books, stationery and school supplies. Additionally, WildChina facilitates experiences for their tour patrons to work closely with the Guang’ai School for Orphans in Hebei province, orchestrating musical exchanges with other schools and planting trees on their campus.
This mentality also necessitates tour companies to be on top of world events and adapt their travel programs accordingly. For example, this past April, when a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Yushu, Qinghai province in northwestern China, bordering Tibet, WildChina took action. They donated their eco-friendly camping tents, used for their signature Tibetan Yushu Horse Festival journey (www.wildchina.com/china-adventure-travel/overview/tibetan-yushu-horse-festival), to house Yushu earthquake victims.
At the Linden Centre (www.linden-centre.com), an American-owned boutique hotel and cultural retreat within Xizhou village, Yunnan Province, guests have opportunities to visit and teach in local kindergartens and elementary schools and help with the Linden’s own “English Corner” classes for villagers. The Centre is also working on town revitalization projects with the local government. Says Brian Linden, who owns and operates the hotel, “Guests will soon be able to work with a local craftsmen, and help restore some of the historical homes and temples. We are also discussing with the local government how we can have our guests spend time on archaeological sites, thereby participating in the uncovering of local history.” And the Chinese government seems to like it too. The following is a translation of an actual local government statement:
“We love to have foreign visitors work side-by-side with some of our local craftsmen. The sense of volunteerism, giving back to the community, sets a great example for our community.”
According to David Clemmons, Founder of voluntourism.org, travelers find the most rewarding aspect of these volunteer experiences to be the opportunities that the work provides for interaction with local residents. Says David, “If that element is not included in the experience the trip will have the opposite affect. People believe that through these types of volunteering experiences, they will have a deeper connection with the local residents, a connection that goes beyond what they would experience if they had simply traveled as a tourist.” (www.voluntourism.org)
This is true in both urban and rural areas. In Beijing, WildChina travelers can meet with local NGO representatives to learn about preservation of the rapidly disappearing hutong houses in the city. In natural, undeveloped regions travelers can give back by assisting with environmental and wildlife projects. WildChina even offers an environmental service program that can involve elementary school children!
In Sichuan Province, the Laohegou Forestry Center lies in the heart of one of the region’s most natural areas. Once the area’s major job provider, the center is struggling to find an alternative to logging, now banned by the government. Laohegou is home to many rare plants and animals, including the endangered giant panda, and offers a bounty of forest trails and wildlife watching opportunities. However, the local community lacks the skills and resources to open Laohegou to tourism. The area was also hit hard by the May 12, 2008 earthquake, and the region is sorely in need of aid and relief.
This trip offers families and student groups an unforgettable opportunity to help rebuild Laohegou, while experiencing some of China’s most beautiful natural scenery and exciting endangered species. Focused around service work, the trip includes several short-term volunteer opportunities in the greater Laohegou community and culminates in a longer, physically challenging project within the Forestry Center itself.
From the NGO side, Nicola Haffenden, a Canadian who teaches English in Songgui, a small village in rural Yunnan Province, had the following to say about her experiences and why she contacts local accommodations and tour operators and encourages them to bring and refer visitors:
I came to Yunnan with a Sino-American NGO to work as a teacher in a small Bai ethnic township. As much as my work here revolves around teaching English, helping the local teachers to improve their oral skills and testing standards, working in this community is also about cultural exchange. For my students and their families, my colleagues and I are some of the only foreign people they have ever seen. We bring our cultural differences and experiences to our classrooms as well as to the homes of our students, which we often visit as it gives us a chance to know more about our students’ daily living conditions, family life and what they like to do with their spare time. Being in someone’s home allows you to share not only your language abilities but also your culture. This kind of exchange and chatting is what local people here like to call “xian” or “jiaoliu,” which means to relax or communicate. It is something that is really valuable to the people I have met and an essential part of the voluntourist or volunteer experience.
Many of the things we can do as volunteers have a small but deep impact on the lives of the people and communities we touch. Nicola found out just how much when she learned that one of her students wrote about her experiences in Nicola’s English class as an essay in her Chinese class. The student wrote about how Nicola “danced for them at the end of our late night study halls and how I helped them to harvest corn on their day of labor in the fall, how I shared information about Western holidays with them, giving them candy and telling ghost stories at Halloween, and how I made them change the lyrics of the well-known Olympic theme song ‘Welcome to Beijing,’ to ‘Welcome to Songgui.”
Explains Nicola, “it will be these small things that change and impact my life and remind me of the lives I too have impacted.” This is the essence of the voluntourist’s experience.
David Clemmons agreed, “Travelers look at voluntourism as a passport to a deeper, more meaningful cultural and even life-changing travel experience.” Clemmons should know, he began volunteering when he was six years old, and has been traveling and volunteering ever since. He formed voluntourism.org in 2003 as a global resource for these kinds of experiences.
For more information on volunteer projects in China contact The China National Tourist Office at 888-760-8218 (NY) or 800-670-2228 (LA) or online at www.cnto.org.
China’s Hotel Boom
By Marian Goldberg
Despite the economic recession in North America and Europe, Asia is experiencing a new hotel boom. China, especially, has seen a hotel surge. Some 400 new hotels are expected to open in China by the end of 2010, according to Lodging Econometrics (www.lodging-econometrics.com), and this is on top of 413 new hotel openings in 2009, and 856 new hotel openings in 2008!
Particularly in Shanghai, with World Expo 2010 (www.expo.cn), running through October 31, hotel construction has taken off. Nearly 58 million visitors from abroad are expected to attend Expo, and according to estimates, 400,000 beds are needed per day between May and October. Twenty new upmarket hotels, with more than 62,000 total rooms, will have opened in Shanghai alone between January and December of 2010.
A Selection of 2010 Shanghai hotel openings
In February 2010 two grand hotels opened. The 686 guest room Gran Mélia Shanghai (www.gran-melia-shanghai.com) opened in the center of Pudong. The 501 guest room Shanghai Marriott Hotel Changfeng Park (www.marriott.com) opened in a 32-story building facing the Changfeng Park and overlooking Su Zhou River. On April 28, 2010, just days before the opening of Expo, the Intercontinental Shanghai Expo, located in Pudong, right on the World Expedition site (www.ichotelsgroup.com), began welcoming guests. All 400 rooms have views of either the Expo grounds or the Hangpu River.
The Renaissance Shanghai Putuo (www.marriott.com) opened its 330-room property on May 23, 2010. Hurry up and book your clients, because they’re offering an Advance purchase Weekend Special World Expo Package for just 595 CNY (about $87) through August 23rd. With a minimum two-night stay, your clients can receive 15 percent off; a complimentary Expo 2010 single day admission ticket per stay, complimentary breakfast, and a complimentary public transportation card worth 100 CNY or about $14.50.
The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai Pudong (www.ritzcarlton.com), to open on June 21, 2010, will be the only hotel in Pudong with integrated luxury office, residential and retail space. Its 285 guest rooms and suites will be located on the 39th through 51st floors of a multi-use tower complex with sweeping city views.
The Waldorf Astoria Shanghai (www.waldorfastoria.com) on the Bund will open the first of its two buildings in summer 2010. The “Waldorf Astoria Club,” occupying the location of the legendary Shanghai Club, built in 1911, has been restored to its neo-classical splendor with the assistance of archival photographs. It will house 20 luxury European-style suites. The second building, to be connected to the Waldorf Astoria Club via a manicured courtyard, will offer 249 guest rooms and will open Q4 2010.
The Fairmont Peace Hotel will be Fairmont’s China flagship when it opens on September 1, 2010. The hotel operates as two separate businesses. The South Building was built as the Palace Hotel and reopened in 2009 as the Swatch Art Peace Hotel (www.swatch-art-peace-hotel.com). The North Building, built as the Sassoon House, originally housed the Cathay Hotel, but will be the Fairmont Peace Hotel (www.fairmont.com/peacehotel). This century-old, 12-story landmark, situated on the Bund, will open downtown with 270 rooms, facing the Pudong area over the Hangpu River. The hotel will also serve as a historical museum, showcasing photographs and cultural relics from
Shanghai’s heyday in the 1930s.
The Sheraton Shanghai Hong Kou will open on Nov. 1 2010, the day after Expo closes. Its 490 spacious and inviting guest rooms and suites will be located one mile from the Bund and less than two miles from the People’s Square.
The Conrad Hotel and Jumeirah Hotel Towers Shanghai is still scheduled to open in 2010, but as of June 1st, the actual month is still to be determined. Each of its two 24-story towers curves gently to create an elegant profile with the building. The window wall patterns, in Chinese granite, are based upon traditional Chinese Han dynasty latticework, making the hotel look oh-so contemporary, yet very Chinese. The 362-room hotel is positioned as the gateway to Xintiandi, Shanghai’s vibrant and pulsating entertainment hub.
Hotel Openings in China’s Special Administrative Regions
On April 21, 2010 in Macau, Steve Wynn celebrated the opening of the all-suite (414 of them) Encore Macau (www.wynnmacau.com/en/) with his signature fireworks display. The suites are a rosy red in tone and are a complement to its sister resort, the Wynn Macau to which it is actually connected. Wynn also announced that he would open a not-yet-named third hotel in Macau in 2014. Also debuting in summer 2010 is the Mandarin Oriental Macau (www.mandarinoriental.com/macau), a non-gaming luxury resort and spa on the Nape waterfront, connected to trendy retail and entertainment developments.
In Hong Kong, a new Ritz Carlton will emerge in late 2010 as the world’s tallest hotel! Soaring from the 102nd floor to the 118th floor of the International Commerce Centre (ICC), with unrivaled views of Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong Island and the New Territories, the hotel will be an integral part of a luxury commercial, residential and retail tower. For information visit: www.ritzcarlton.com
Taiwan is welcoming four new hotels in 2010. The 386 guest room Sheraton Hsinchu Hotel opened April 4 and the 656 room Crowne Plaza Kaohsiung E-Da World opened on May 27. Later this year, both the Le Meridien Taipei and the Sheraton Yilan Resort will open by December 1, (some sources say earlier, but we cannot confirm). Finally, the very anticipated, 405-room W Taipei will begin welcoming guests in style to Taipei’s Xinayi commercial and entertainment district on December 28, 2010. Look forward to a spectacular New Year’s Eve!
Showcasing the REAL China
By Marian Goldberg
I am always surprised when travelers tell me that they “do not have China high on their ‘must see’ lists.” When I ask why, most of the time it amounts to a lack of knowledge of the country. How can you convince people, who have never been to China to go, or who have visited China in the 1980s to go back? One idea may be through our youth. Many young people are now learning Chinese language in school, and the Chinese New Year is a required part of the Social Studies curriculum, at least in New Jersey. Chinese food is as popular as pizza, and youngsters wonder if it tastes the same in China. My children know their Chinese zodiac birth year. I certainly didn’t know mine at their age. I visited China in April 2009 alone, but in August 2006 I traveled with my mother (then 70) and daughter (then 11).
My mother had visited China in 1997, 12 years prior to our visit, on a standard tour and didn’t recognize the country. She would not have gone back, and only did so, because of my daughter. My daughter, Brianna, saw China with fresh eyes. She loved the Children’s Castle in Shanghai. My mother thought she might have seen it before, but wasn’t sure. Regardless, it was different experiencing it with her granddaughter. Brianna got to see the exacting Chinese kids play traditional instruments, and she got to try some herself. However, this was nothing compared to Bri’s thrill at discovering a tall, modern Shanghai building that was, in fact, an enormous toy store. Literally, we passed it while driving on the street. Brianna saw the two-story glass display window and made us stop. I ran out with her and the guide as translator, dodging traffic as we crossed the street, while my mother waited in the car with the driver for almost an hour. Brianna came back to the car beaming, having bought Japanese anime related toys and gadgets for a fraction of the price in the USA or Japan. This was certainly not your typical commission-shopping spree. Brianna was ecstatic, and we were all happy that the guide and driver were so flexible to let us do this. To this day Brianna is interested in all things Asian.
These days, China always seems to be in the press. While the economies of the Western world sag, China’s is booming. The Olympics showed China’s special features: history and culture, contemporary art and architecture, regional cuisine, and the talents and abilities of its people. But, there is often a lot of conflicting negative information about China the tourism industry needs to counteract. Show potential clients what is truly special– with a really great itinerary and “little extras.” The itinerary should demonstrate how they can explore the culture in an in-depth and personalized but comfortable way – even if they don’t want to be with a large group. Give them superior guides who are not only knowledgeable, but flexible and personable. Are they willing to pay more for a “better” guide? If so, try to find the right guide who has the expertise to match their specific interests. The right or “better” guide would be one evaluated not only based on his or hers historical knowledge, but awareness of the client’s interests and whether the guide is personable and willing to “go the extra mile.” Counsel clients to know what to expect in advance. Patricia Cunneen, President of East Quest Inc. (www.east-quest.com) said, “I always try to lower their expectations. This way, when they have the great experience that you planned to give them anyway, it’s a ‘Wow!’” Discuss and overcome any cleanliness concerns in advance. For example, when WildChina (www.wildchina.com) clients, Dawn and Larry Steiner and Kit and Luke Argilla, in their mid-60s, traveled to the Han village of Jichang (1.5 hour drive from Guiyang), dating back to the Ming Dynasty era, there were no appropriate hotel accommodations. WildChina arranged a home-stay, and their staff personally came in and changed the sheets of the straw-stuffed mattresses. They made sure there was electricity, insured the kitchen was clean and food was properly handled, inspected the out- house and brought a folding toilet seat, so the Steiners and Argillas did not have to squat. The guests loved the home-stay experience. Dawn acknowledged it was “primitive” but she added, “The experience was amazing.
We hiked past sugar cane crops to an ancient village where we watched their paper-making, an art they have practiced there for 1,800 years! Our hosts also cooked amazing meals, but we trusted WildChina and no one got sick.” Give clients shopping information and tips at their request and help them find what they would like to buy. That guide we had in Shanghai really excelled in helping my daughter find her anime knock-offs. My guide in Dali in April, took me to a private traditional-yet-modern clothing “factory” (actually hand-sewn but produced in quantity), where I found truly special hemp jackets and pants for less than a quarter of what I would pay in the United States. On my prior trip, my guide in Beijing took me to a shop (www.chinasuccessstories.com/beijing-ruifuxiang-silk) where I chose my own silk fabric, my own traditional-yet-modern Chinese-style design from an array of mannequins, and was measured. He also brought me back the next day for a fitting and fixit. This was actually pre-arranged in advance with the tour company, Asia Pacific Travel Ltd (www.china1on1.com) because they knew what I wanted. About “Planned Spontaneity” and In-depth Experience Marie and Ralph Kissick were one of those couples who had no desire to go to China. Well traveled, they had been all over Africa and South America, but China was not on their radar. Then some friends, Leigh and Paul Tischler, showed them the “Chinese Treasures” itinerary from WildChina (www.wildchina.com/province_details.php?product_id=48), and the four of them decided to travel together. The itinerary included an introduction to Tai Chi at the Temple of Heaven and a calligraphy lesson inside the Stele Forest Museum in Xi’an, the largest stone tablet library in China. Both experiences were planned but seemed almost spontaneous. Marie explained, “After seeing the terracotta warriors, we were walking through the Stele Museum with our guide and there at a table, amongst all the ancient calligraphy tablets was a professional calligraphic artist hired by WildChina, just to teach us!”
The two couples also walked through the Hutong district in Beijing and as they passed through one alley, an old woman called them and their guide inside for tea. Again, it seemed impromptu, but WildChina had actually planned it in advance. “It was a real treat to see the interior of a Hutong home and the peoples’ daily lives from the inside,” commented Marie. Two other examples of the guide’s flexibility that Marie described took place in Beijing. Marie wanted a foot rub. Without any difficulty, the guide found her a very clean place for an hour-and-a-half reflexology foot massage that she described as “like watching a ballet.” And the cost was only $20! Next, although the couples are 69 years old, and extremely active, they wanted to ride bicycles on the Great Wall. Again, without question, the guide rented bikes for them and joined them on their two wheeling exploration. The cost and experience were included with the tour.
The Steiners and Argillas had more experiences to share. The two couples had been all over Asia but had never been to China. They wanted an upscale in-depth experience like they had had in Southeast Asia, but didn’t think it was possible in China. The couples normally go on small group trips (12 people or less), but this time they wanted a three-week custom experience. They knew they didn’t want to see the Xi’an warriors or take a Yangtze River cruise. They wanted to get out into the countryside and meet people, take a traditional cooking class and have a home cooking experience, and visit world heritage sites with an expert. They ended up taking an afternoon cooking program at a professional cooking school in Yangshuo (Yunnan Province) after a morning tour of the terraced rice fields of Longsheng (on the “not yet” world heritage site list). Carved into the hillside over hundreds of years by the local Zhuang and Yao people, when filled with water, the rice terraces resemble dragons’ scales blanketing the terrain, hence the mountain’s name “Dragon’s Back.”
Other immersive experiences included tea ceremonies and tastings in both Shanghai and Lijiang, a fan-making workshop in Fuli (also Yunnan Province), bamboo rafting on the Yulong River, a vegetable market tour with a local chef followed by dumpling-making in a villager’s home. They also enjoyed unique cultural performances: an opera famous for its symbolic masks in Guizhou, the renowned acrobatic show in Shanghai, and the “Impression Liu Sanjie” Sound and Lights Show in Yangshuo. Shopping that the Client Wants The Steiners and Argillas were not big shoppers, but they did want to buy silk duvets, so the guide again, almost spontaneously, arranged for them to visit a silk factory in Shanghai. They also asked about pearls, and Dawn described the pearl market in Shanghai as “an experience in itself.” Noting further, “You could spend the whole day there if you were a serious jewelry buyer. There are some inexpensive things, but there are also some very expensive items!” Dawn even enjoyed a trip to a Walmart-like store. “It was just fun to see the everyday stuff the Chinese buy.” She was fascinated to see ubiquitous folding toilet seats for sale. More on Guides Dawn couldn’t stress enough how wonderful her guides were. “They were responsive, forthcoming in answering questions, and stopped whenever we asked to use a restroom.” They were always “one step ahead.” She noted, “It was cold one day and we had not brought hats or gloves. So our guide went out after dropping us off that night, without even telling us, and purchased us knit hats and gloves!” Marianne Porter, who was also recently in China, praised her guide for going “out of her way to make sure that all of us saw, did, and had everything we wanted. She also shared stories of her family and how they dealt with the turmoil in China over the last century. We all felt she was a real treasure and that we were so very lucky to have had her show us Beijing.” Walter Keats, President of Asia Pacific Travel Ltd, has been to China more than 80 times since 1980, and his wife, Winnie Lu, is from Shanghai. They gave me an interesting guide “tip.” They said, “Tip your guide in advance. Or, at least give him/her part of the money in advance with a note that there is more coming.” They found this is important with freelance guides. With staff guides, such as those WildChina uses, that might not be an issue. A Travel Agent’s Perspective Susan Sparks is a Travel & Leisure A+ Super Agent and an affiliate of Brownell Travel (www.brownelltravel.com/susansparks.html).
She is “all about special interest travel.” She just finished arranging a personalized experience for a couple interested in the music of Thailand that took her clients up into the hill tribes where they have sustained their cultural music heritage. Susan looks for suppliers with a “cutting edge” itinerary. She strives to “come up with the unusual” but do it in a way that the luxury traveler is comfortable, even if they may be outside their element, such as a home-stay, or what she loved, “an honest to goodness puppet show in a very remote village.” Susan commented on going to the Sisters’ Meal Festival, where she did a home-stay with her clients. She worked with WildChina, which actually brought a chef into the local family’s home to cook during her clients’ stay. The clients were two 80-year-old women, but the local village women immediately took them aside, dressed them in their ethnic costumes, arranged their hair with an added headpiece, and brought them to the festival. These wealthy clients of Susan’s were so inspired that after returning to the U.S., they ended up donating an entire computer system to the village. It could not have happened if the tour company had not made their experience so personal and enriching. A lot of people who travel because they want to make a difference, don’t realize that there is a lot that can be done in China. There are even programs for youth. It can take a lot of effort and string pulling to arrange these kinds of immersive experiences in a way that is acceptable to the American traveler, but the rewards for the traveler, the tour operator, the community, and the destination as a whole are far reaching in both substance and time. Now we just need to get the word out.
For more information, contact the China National Tourist Office in New York, 888-760-8218; fax 212-760-8809; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or, in Los Angeles 800-670-2228; fax 818-545-7506; E-mail email@example.com; or visit www.cnto.org