China must improve infrastructure and services, as well as offer visas upon arrival, to develop a thriving travel industry and enjoy its economic benefits, a top global tourism expert said on Tuesday.
Beijing should also spread out holidays to avoid the mad rush caused by the three “golden weeks” off every year when hundreds of millions of people take to the roads, rails and air, said the head of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
“There is a strong appeal to go to China. The country is intriguing. It has a 5,000-year history, which is the best marketing campaign someone could ever do for a country,” WTTC President Jean-Claude Baumgarten said in an interview.
Last year China received more than 17 million tourists — excluding visitors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau — according to Chinese government figures.
“Will that figure become 70 million or 80 million in 2020 or 2025? The potential is here. It all will depend on the infrastructure,” Baumgarten told Reuters at a luxury hotel in Beijing’s central business district.
To boost tourism, China needs to build more roads, improve the standard of spoken English, make sure credit cards can be more widely used in a cash-dominant economy and bring in foreign expertise to improve management of the industry.
“The good thing is that airports are of very high standards, and can be expanded,” Baumgarten said, highlighting Shanghai’s new Pudong international airport which plans to eventually have an annual capacity of 80 million passengers.
“The bad side is that you have air traffic control which is definitely not able to handle a dramatic increase in air movements. The air traffic control is run by the military still, and that is something which has to be addressed.”
Plenty of potential
Services also come under strain during the Lunar New Year, Labor Day and National Day holidays, when the whole country goes on holiday at the same time — something Baumgarten said should be changed.
“One of the challenges is to flatten out those migrations so that people travel all year round,” he said.
Travel and tourism will represent more than $300 billion or about 14 percent of GDP this year, directly and indirectly, and the sector employs more than 77 million people, the WTTC said in an April report.
Only tiny Montenegro’s tourism industry is growing at a faster rate than China’s, said Baumgarten, who first visited China in the 1970s at the height of the Cultural Revolution when he was working for Air France.
“You will have to create a travel and tourism industry which is super high-tech in order to handle all of the challenges and realise the full potential. If that is achieved, jobs will be created,” he added.
Granting visas upon arrival, as other tourist hot spots such as Malaysia and Thailand do for visitors from Europe, the United States and Japan, would also help. Most visitors now need to apply for a visa before coming to China.
“I think the best sign a country can give as to its attitude to the world is to be friendly,” Baumgarten said. “I would strongly encourage the Chinese government to go for a visa-upon-arrival policy.”