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Anywhere but here

2014-10-30 09:14 Global Times Web Editor: Qian Ruisha
China's air pollution problem has been identified as one of the main deterrents for tourists. Photo: Li Hao/GT

China's air pollution problem has been identified as one of the main deterrents for tourists. Photo: Li Hao/GT

"Bad air, bad service, bad facilities," said 25-year-old Japanese tourist Kenichi Sakada, summing up his experience of Beijing.

Sakada, who spent a week in the capital last November, remembers standing just outside Tiananmen Gate and not being able to make out the features on the large portrait of Chairman Mao because of the egregious smog. Disenchanted, he turned to leave - but realized he had no idea where he was supposed to go.

"The street signs on the side of the street were rather vague," recalls Sakada. "And I didn't speak any Chinese besides nihao [hello], xiexie [thank-you] and zaijian [goodbye]."

Sakada tried to get help from passers-by, but he found that no one spoke English or Japanese. When he eventually made his way back to his hotel, he asked a friend in Japan to hire a private local tour guide for him, at the cost of 4,000 yuan ($654.64) a week.

Sakada, who can list the US, Spain, France, Kenya and Russia among the places he has visited, said he found his time in China to be disappointing.

"I met a lot of Westerners during my travels," Sakada said. "We all thought China would be a perfect tourist destination before actually going there."

According to this year's Annual Report on China Inbound Tourism published by the China Tourism Academy, tourism to China has steadily declined since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, with the drop-off worsening in the past three years.

Although last year saw around 129 million foreigners visit China, only 10.12 million came for tourism and leisure - a drop-off of 1.51 million, or 13 percent, compared to 2012.

The report went on to cite China's air pollution as the major factor for the declining numbers of tourists, a view that was expounded upon by tourism research fellow Liu Simin from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in a Xinhua News Agency article. "Potential tourists to China have been known to cancel their trips when they see the warnings about the air pollution," said Liu.

"Westerners traveling from afar often plan their trips several months ahead of time, so not only are they frustrated and disappointed, but it also costs them money to cancel the trip."

Declining fortunes

Ye Qing, 32, has been working as a private tour guide in Beijing since 2004. Prior to branching out on her own, she had been employed by a small tourism agency for more than a year, during the period when inbound tourism to China was beginning to flourish.

In 2002, about 97.91 million foreigners entered China, an increase of nearly 10 percent over the previous year.

"When I was working at the small tourism agency, we never needed to worry about not having enough customers," said Ye. "Almost every day, I would have to show curious foreigners from all over the world around Beijing. We made a lot of money."

After resigning from the agency, Ye offered her services as a private tour guide on foreign websites like Facebook and Twitter, and made a living through good word-of-mouth.

She said that the good times lasted until 2008.

"Then we entered the downturn, which has lasted very, very long," she said.

Li Ping, manager of the inbound tourism department at Beijing Tianping International Travel Service, said that inbound tourism these days only accounts for 5 to 10 percent of the company's business.

"Since 2012, we've been struggling," said Li. "We didn't have a single foreign customer during this year's golden week [China's National Day holidays]."

To deal with the decline in inbound tourism, Li said her company is focusing on outbound tourism. Due to China's rapid economic development and the rising value of the Chinese yuan, said Li, more and more Chinese people were interested in traveling abroad.

"Who cares about bringing in foreigners? It is easier to make a fortune from Chinese people here."

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