A trip to Xi'an was to see the terracotta warriors. But it also yielded some useful insights into the development of China’s tourism industry.
It cannot be said that international tourism promotion is one of China's strong points, despite the fact that the government actually explicitly understands its importance – in fact it is starting from a very low base. Elementary rules continue to be ignored – to take a simple example, the final editing of English guides and other documents is still done by people whose first language is not English and presumably the same applies to other languages. The result is the wasting of large sums of money on guides and promotional material that are literally incomprehensible. As it would, doubtless, be prohibitively expensive to have all such material translated by native English speakers nevertheless the employment of a few dozen native English speaking sub-editors, to do the final editing, would be one of the most cost effective investments the Chinese tourist authorities could make and pay for itself many times over.
Similarly arrival at even the most international Chinese airports, such as Shanghai or Beijing, remains a forbidding experience for tourists compared to what is possible. There are no maps or simple printed guides immediately available for visitors, and even getting into town is not clearly explained.
All this is a huge pity as not only is the standard of the tourist attractions evidently completely outstanding (Great Wall, Forbidden City, terracotta warriors!) but the basic standard of hotels is good in their different price ranges – the main problem being that as you go down in price European breakfasts deteriorate (but when did you last cook a Chinese one?). As I know I am far from unique in relishing Chinese lunch and dinner, but not being able to deal early in the morning with the very different Chinese breakfast, this is an issue. But cleanliness, good facilities, and security can be obtained at different points in the price range and, provided measures are taken to anticipate the breakfast issue, a holiday in China therefore need not be prohibitively expensive nor need it be confined to business traveller quality hotels.
The quality of information at some of the cultural treasure of China is also of very high quality – Shanghai museum, in partcular, must be one of the best in the world. The problem is that the whole is not bound together into a coherent leisure visitor experience. Marketing and promotion also remains very weak – there is nothing remotely matching the excellence of the ‘Incredible India’ promotional campaign.
Arriving in Xi’an was therefore a pleasant experience. Xi’an is destined to be one of the world’s most important tourist destinations – one on a level equivalent to Rome for example. Not only does it have the terracotta warriors but, as the capital of China for over a thousand years, it has in the more than 10km long intact city wall, Han dynasty tombs, and quite incredible art in the city museum cultural sites and tourist attractions that match those anywhere. The fact that it is the centre of China’s satellite control system, and was previously a city dominated by military industry, might make the Chinese authorities nervous about opening it up to the scale of tourism that is possible but no signs of this were seen on this visit.
Given the problems already described for Shanghai and Beijing imagine the pleasure, both personal and in terms of professional interest, in immediately being handed a city map and guide on exiting from the baggage claim. Clear, succinct and in comprehensible English whoever prepared it deserves high marks. It immediately made the city more comprehensible for the visitor. A bit of investigation showed there to be a reasonable range of hotels at different points in the price spectrum with the breakfast problem being reasonably solved quite far down the price range.
Of course very many detailed problems remained in some areas of the city. The presentation of the terracotta warriors themselves was on a high level but the huge tourist market after leaving the site, selling completely trashy souvenirs, is a disgrace to one of the most important cultural sites in the world, and therefore to the national dignity of China, and should be demolished. But someone in Xi’an was getting their act together to begin to present the city as a coherent visitor experience. Given the incredible quality of the product (who wouldn’t want to work with one of the greatest cultural centres in the world?) my professional mouth simply watered at the thought of working out a coherent promotional strategy for Xi’an! But clear progress is being made and on the basis of this visit cities such as Beijing and Shanghai would be well advised to draw some lessons from what is beginning to happen in Xi’an