Stuck in a crowd of about 200 other tourists, Zhong Jian and her friends waited for an hour to buy tickets for a boat cruise down the scenic Li River before giving up. Their problem: scheduling their trip during the May national holidays.
“Every place we went, we saw so many people,” said Zhong, a 24-year-old travel agent. Finally, they got the ride by soliciting help from a local driver, who used his connections. “It was chaos.”
As China becomes more prosperous, its people are traveling more on their vacations — and overwhelming the facilities. The resulting public backlash is prompting the government to rethink its tightly regulated national holiday policy.
Most Chinese cannot take a break when they want. Rather, the government has set three weeks a year as national holidays. Factories and offices shut down — giving many workers time off they might otherwise never get.
But putting so many of the country’s 1.3 billion people on the move at one time is causing a huge national headache.
Under a proposal issued earlier this month, the government suggested paring the weeklong May break to one day and making three new one-day holidays out of traditional celebrations including grave-sweeping day, the dragon boat festival and the mid-autumn festival.
Reforms may indicate national shift
The plan has set off a lively debate in the state-run media. Some hail the changes as a boost for traditional culture and others say the change isn’t enough. They call for the system to be scrapped completely in favor of letting people choose their own holidays.
The holiday reform debate “indicates that China’s becoming a more normal country. They don’t have to micromanage everyone’s vacations,” said Arthur Kroeber, director of Dragonomics, a Beijing-based economics research firm.
Changes in holidays are another measure of how the country’s economic modernization is remaking Chinese society. After coming to power, communist China’s founders eliminated many traditional festivals in an attempt to engineer a break with what they considered the feudal past.
In 1999, with the economy limping and ordinary Chinese hoarding their earnings in banks, the government decided that longer vacations would encourage people to spend money. The Lunar New Year, Labor Day (May 1) and National Day (Oct. 1) breaks were lengthened to full weeks called “Golden Weeks.”
Travel spending hit $1.9 billion during that year’s October break, according to government figures. In 2007, tourists spent $8.6 billion in the same period, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
The surge translates into jammed planes, trains and buses, overbooked hotels and damage to historic and natural sites. Travelers overrun popular destinations such as the Great Wall, Beijing’s Forbidden City and sacred Mount Tai in eastern China.
Fed up, many middle-class Chinese are traveling abroad over the three Golden Weeks to avoid the hordes at home.
Companies staggering breaks
Meanwhile, a growing number of companies are staggering breaks, even though the law requires them to pay employees three times their daily salaries to work during holidays to eliminate production shutdowns.
Economists have cheered the new government plan as a good first step toward alleviating congestion and pushing tourism companies to improve service.
“The Chinese people are beginning to respect Chinese traditions again,” said Wang Qiyan, director of the Research Center of China’s Leisure Economy at Beijing’s Renmin University.
Ultimately, some experts argue, the government should stop ordering people when to take a break and instead mandate a paid-vacation system, as many other countries have.
“The current plan is not an ideal one yet,” Wang said.
The changes could be put into place next year, state media has said. Authorities have said that they will incorporate suggestions from businesses and the public in the final plan.
One newspaper, the aggressive Southern Metropolis Daily, criticized the government for maintaining undue sway over how people spend their leisure time. It called for a paid-vacation system and blamed today’s problems on policy-making “without discussion and communication.”
“The Golden Weeks were the result of a decision of merely the government, instead of the agreement of the public,” the paper said in an editorial.
Critics decry proposal
But not everyone supports the proposed changes.
At least 21 media outlets have sent a letter to the State Council, China’s cabinet, to protest the proposal, saying that employees need all three weeklong holidays to get proper rest from work.
Zhong, the travel agent, said staggered holidays would make traveling harder to coordinate with friends or family, because now everyone has the same days off. She predicted crowds would balloon further during the two remaining one-week holidays.
“All three holidays are already so crowded,” she said. “If they remove one, it’ll be even worse,” she said.