4 years ago I co-founded Imperial Tours, an inbound luxury tour operator in Beijing, where I lived for 20 years. As a result of the Covid pandemic, I was trapped outside China from November 2019 until three weeks ago when I returned for the first time in over three years. This article describes the changes I found on reopening China’s travel industry.
The Rise of “Genuine” Boutique Hotels
When China first opened to the travel industry in the 1980’s, one of its only sources of foreign currency was the inbound market. Since that beginning the impact of overseas tourists was factored into every decision in the development of the hospitality sector. During Covid however, China was shut off from the outside world and as a result the hospitality sector advanced within its own bubble.
There has impacted a number of things, but one of the most notable has been the rise of the genuine boutique hotel. I write “genuine” because at the first boutique hotel conference in China (at which I spoke), boutique hotels were defined as having up to 100 rooms, which is not how most western travel agents would understand it. However, after being closed off by Covid for more than three years, the spending of affluent upper Chinese classes traveling domestically has caused a mushrooming of interesting boutique hotel alternatives both outside big cities (prompted by the local staycation market) and in China’s longstanding leisure destinations.
There’s of course one problem generated by this organic growth – in many instances, these boutique hotels are ill-equipped to handle foreign visitors. Yangshuo Misty Wonderland Hotel is a perfect example. This luxurious 28 key hotel comprised of villas and very spacious rooms with generous balconies sporting their own capacious baths offers one of the most stunning, if not the most spectacular, view and location in the entire country. (Above photo is of me sitting on a bench located within an ornamental swimming pool in front of the mountainscape.) Not bad, right?
Buildings are styled on the traditional architecture of the Han and Tang dynasties. Yet not only is there not a single staff member able to rub two words of English together, but there are no western dishes on any of the hotel menus. There is no concession anywhere to the potential demands of a non-Chinese speaking tourist – something that would have been unthinkable prior to Covid.
The same is true at the delightfully landscaped Tong Resort in the same area. But do not lose hope – Jora, a 35 room “Small Luxury Hotel of the World”, in the same area had the most resourceful staff at any hotel I have ever encountered and accommodates English speaking guests.
As we move beyond the first phase of China’s reopening, the re-introduction of overseas tourists to China’s inbound market coupled with the reduction in demand from the domestic traveler, will inevitably encourage this new wave of Chinese boutique hotels to invest in services for overseas travelers which can but enrich the market and textured experience of travel in China.
Fewer QR Codes And More Real Menus
If you’re anything like me you stifle an internal groan when you walk into a restaurant and are compelled by the waiter to scan a QR code to browse online to the restaurant menu, which you subsequently peruse with difficulty on your annoyingly limited mobile phone screen. This was a digital innovation introduced during Covid to reduce the spread of infection.
I object to the impersonality of this characterless functionality, and so am cheered by a trend in techno-addicted China tilting in the opposite direction. When I went to dine at Michelin one star, Poetry Wine, I was thrilled to be handed a thick, large format volume with a photo of each dish with its name, price and ingredients printed on individual pages of high-quality paper.
I was dining amongst a group of friends and we all started to discuss the menu and our choice of dishes. The menu prompted an entertaining conversation that became the foundation of a hearty and enjoyable dinner. Ignace Lecleirc, a successful restaurateur and owner of a wide stable of Beijing eateries including the fabulous Michelin one star fine-dining establishment, Temple Restaurant Beijing – Hutong, assures me that this trend is now becoming well-established.
A New Digital Divide In China
When people speak of a digital divide they typically refer generationally to the elderly failing to keep up with the technology of the day, not the bifurcation of American and Chinese internet systems with their separate app universes. Whilst I can travel freely between western Europe and America and use the same apps such as Uber, Booking.com, Google Maps and Whatsapp, that borderless digital experience totally collapses at Chin’s border.
Not only do all apps owned by Google or Facebook not operate in China, but moreover, China’s digital universe is comprised of an entirely different set of apps. For navigation, you would use Baidu or Gaode, the first of which does not even seem to be available to non-China registered accounts. Restaurant recommendations are on Dianping. Ride hailing is on Didi, payment services rely on Alipay or Wechat and ctrip would be used for travel bookings. It’s an entirely different app universe and with the exception of ctrip, which offers trip.com outside China most of these apps are not going to be easy for the traveler to use in China because of linguistic and logistical barriers.
What this means in practice for overseas travelers, for example, is that whilst travelers can always get the hotel concierge to order them a cab to a restaurant, which the concierge would still be required to suggest (as travelers cannot access Dianping’s restaurant suggestions for linguistic reasons), for the return journey, travelers would require the restaurant to order them a cab back to the hotel. It seems that most cab drivers are accepting cash, so payment in that situation is not an issue. However, travelers can no longer presume to be able to hail cabs as these are mostly responding to ride-hailing apps now. These are the kinds of considerations that travelers will need to incorporate within their journeys through China. Increasingly, access to China’s digital services is leaving overseas visitors behind.
Like an anxious child fearing the loss of his mother, so on my most recent trip did I worry about how I might possibly negotiate life in China without my mobile phone. As I participate within China’s digital universe, I understand its reach and ubiquity such that on the one hand I fear for travelers who cannot access it and on the other, I am subsequently insensitive to situations where overseas travelers, particularly independent travelers making their way without the help of a local operator, might struggle with the most basic aspects of digital life there.
Of course, no article on the Chinese internet is complete without emphasizing the need for overseas travelers to equip themselves with a solid VPN service prior to travel there in order to access their favorite western web sites and services. Indeed, I would now recommend travelers subscribe to two different VPN services so that in the event one is blocked or ineffective, they always have the other to turn to and use to gain access to Instagram, Facebook and Google, etc.
The New Greater Bay Area
This is something that has not garnered attention in western media but deserves mention. The Chinese government first documented its intention to create a Greater Bay area in 2017. The idea is to integrate Hong Kong, Macao, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and five lesser known successful, southern cities within an environmentally sustainable and technologically progressive development plan. And when the Chinese government decide on these strategic plans, there’s usually good reason and they usually happen.
So here we are six years later following the construction of interconnecting high speed rail links, bridges and airport clusters along with new rules facilitating the movement of people and goods between these areas. For the travel industry, our attention needs to be focused on Macau in particular as this has been designated the travel hub within the plan.
Already known as a destination for gambling, following a recent crackdown on junkets (associated with money laundering), Macau is seeking to develop alternate revenue streams. Las Vegas provides obvious direction, but in addition, I have been told, significant funds are soon going to be devoted to promoting recreation and the arts across this area.
This message was echoed by Meg Maggio, an art aficionado of many years standing in Hong Kong, who advised that big plans are afoot in the world of art across the entire Greater Bay area, not just Macau. How this will impact travel we will wait to see, but it’s worth just mentioning now.
The No-Show of Outbound Chinese Travelers
As this is relevant but unwelcome, I will cover it briefly. Major travel suppliers in the west might have been expecting a sudden rush of Chinese clients in the wake of China’s re-opening. I am sorry to report that this won’t be happening in the immediate future. As a result of political tensions, countries have been grouped into friendly and unfriendly sets, with Chinese outbound groups able currently to travel only to those deemed friendly. France qualifies as friendly, but UK and US do not for example. Whilst FIT travelers can travel freely, groups are subject to this restriction. I would anticipate that the warming of international relations will quickly address this lagging stricture.
We are still of course very much in the early days of China’s reopening and many of the apparent obstacles, such as the continuing lack of trans-Pacific flights, will surely be bridged in due course. As that happens, no matter if you have already been to China many times, like me you will always find that it has shifted in your absence and that there’s always something new to discover and enjoy.
First published in Insider China Report on June 13, 2023.