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The State of Travel in China

It's been a month since the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and protesters hurled rocks at our Beijing embassy. What's happened to tourism as a result? Are Americans heading for Beijing and Shanghai this summer or have these become Forbidden Cities? The Savvy Traveler's Marty Goldensohn has an update.

The State of Travel in China
by Marty Goldensohn

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Official U.S.-China relations do seem to be going downhill, especially if you add in the nuclear spy scandal, but from a traveler's point of view, things appear to be returning to normal quite quickly since May 7th, the bombing. Next day, rock throwing in Beijing and a State Department warning to postpone travel to China. But immediately, reassurances from the Chinese: the Minister of Tourism, saying it's perfectly safe...don't consider staying away. Four days later, our State Department's telephone hotline replaces it's strong "don't go now" advisory with a milder one:

State Department hotline: "Americans should exercise caution while living or traveling in China."

What exactly does "caution" mean? According the State Department, travelers should keep an eye on the news, be aware of Chinese sensitivities, and avoid areas where demonstrations might be in progress. Toni King did just that. A 24-year-old New Yorker, he was in Beijing during the protests.

King: "I stayed away from the embassy area and most people acted pretty much the same to me although some cab drivers would ask where I was from and I would basically say, for the sake of prudence, I would say I was from Canada."

King says the Chinese were "upset but not overly militant." He won't hesitate to go back. And Gloria, a single women whom we found on line for a visa at the Chinese consul in New York, isn't changing her plans to see the Great Wall for the first time.

Marty: "You're not scared to go given the fact that..."

Gloria: "No."

Marty: "...we bombed their embassy by mistake?"

Gloria: "No. I am going in another month, in July but ..nyeeh! Wherever you go its the same thing, whether you stay here or go away."

It's hard to faze people who ride the New York subways every day. And besides, Gloria's on a tour -- which she figures would have been cancelled if anything serious were the matter.

Travel agencies tend to put the best possible face on these scares, so one has to be skeptical of the numbers issued, but the Hong Kong-based China Travel Service, reports that only 25 percent of bookings were cancelled or postponed. According to hotel keepers in Beijing, quoted in the Singapore papers, things are slowly returning to normal. We called around Beijing to see if we could get a room on the spot. Holiday Inn's answer was typical.

Marty: "You have room for tonight?"

Holiday Inn: "Yes, we have...ah yes!"

The Chinese government hopes the 680,000 visits they got last year won't drop significantly. Clearly there's an effort to get past the bombing and the demonstrations. After the bombing and resulting protests, the newspaper Xinhua ran an article entitled: "Foreign Tourists Welcomed to Guilin" a major tourist destination. China's Vice President Hu Jintao has appeared twice on national TV pledging that foreigners will be protected.

If you care to be extra cautious...wait, but China does appear to be a destination that can go back on your itinerary. And you can add Beijing to your list of cities where you might hear classic joke: You ask a local resident, "Where's the American embassy?" He says: "Oh, it's just a stone's throw from here."

In New York, I'm Marty Goldensohn for The Savvy Traveler.

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