China: The Travel Agent Junket
Shuh Wei singing :"Can you feel the love tonight..."
That's travel guide Shuh Wei entertaining a busload of Western travel agents and travel writers as he shows them around his native Hunan Province. Mr. Shuh, hired by the provincial Chinese tour office, works hard leading this group through museums, up mountains, down caves and into spicy Hunan restaurants, which get mixed reviews from the guests....
Jeremy: "It's a simple, everyday, ordinary restaurant that serves dishes that usually surfs in on a tidal wave of grease."
It is always dangerous to include a merciless food writer like Jeremy Ferguson on a public relations junket. But as these travel professionals digest their Hunan peppers on the bus, the breathtaking Hunan countryside begins to sell itself.
Joe: "It's like a Chinese painting, mountains shrouded in mist..."
Joe O'Hara from Hibiscus travel in NY.
Joe: "...covered in trees, but you can just barely make out the distant mountains in the background."
As a result of trips like this one, paid for by the Chinese Tourist Ministry, travel agents are far more likely to include Hunan in their brochures. Travel agents don't like to use their customers as guinea pigs. If an area of China claims to be ready for tourists, the agents want to see it for themselves.
Knowing this, the Hunan Provincial government has spent years and millions of yuan upgrading roads, and luring hotel investment.
After a brief visit to the capital Changsha, which has more brand new, five star hotels than it needs, the tour is now in the dramatic mountains of Janjiajaie, and staying in the not-so-fancy Pipaxi Hotel, which is comfortable, though banisters would be a good idea. Fortunately the Chinese have hired the French and Swiss to build the cable cars which hoist the group 1,200 meters to the most dramatic mountain peaks in Hunan Province.
At the summit, a huge bear of a travel agent from Australia, Edmund Lucitch, is dancing quite gracefully with a young, native Tujia woman. The ethnic minorities are part of the attraction.
At the base of a mountain as tall and narrow as the Sears Tower, 2,000 people with a stake in Hunan tourism sit on wooden benches in the bright sun for the grand re-opening ceremonies of the upgraded Janjiajaie tourist region. Chinese government officials, airline, travel executives and foreign guests hear many speeches, first in Chinese, then in translation.
Chinese Official: "It's charming and romantic, with more than 800 beautiful brooks winding their ways through over 3,000 majestic peaks."
London-based travel writer Mike Brainard is looking on. He thinks these speeches can fall harshly on Western ears.
Mike: "That's right. If I were the PR for Janjiajaie, I think I would get them to speak in a different language. The deputy mayor spoke to us before the official luncheon and it sounded like he was berating us for being late and when it was translated, he was saying, 'May the blossoms of the autumn petals caress your journalistic cheekbones and we love you.' They sound so hostile."
This may be more Brainard's problem than China's but the Chinese do make blunders in their marketing efforts. Local government officials don't always know what will impress. For example, some travel agents were driven two hours to a rural fireworks factory, which turned out to be a simple barn-like structure with women packing explosives by hand at long tables. Some guests were muttering "firetrap", "sweatshop" and could be overheard asking about the wages..
Travel agent: "That's their salary, ten pounds a month, 15 dollars. Do they get anything for that, like accommodation?"
Government Official: "No, no. They go home."
Fireworks factory aside, the tour of Hunan Province is impressive, including the capital Changsha, where there's an embroidery works, the provincial museum with the mummified 2,000 year Han Dynasty women. As for the Janjiajai mountains, the improvements have won over Betty Thean from all Seasons Travel in Houston. She's ready to sell Janjiajai to customers who love nature, some modest hiking, and can do without the five-star-hotel luxury....
Betty: "You're not going to find five-star places in an unspoiled place like this. You come here to learn, not to sit on the beach and drink beer. Not that I object to that."
Back from Janjiajaie, in the mountain region of Hunan Province, I'm Marty Goldensohn for The Savvy Traveler.
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