China mash – UK 3

Beijing or Bust

Random observations of this over-hyped yet still fascinating city

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Economics of A Travel Guide Bythe third day of our Jiazhaigou tour, I was furious mad at Mr. He, theskinny tour guide who spoke with an impassive soft tone. During the10-hour bus ride on the first day, he, with the help from the stockyand loud driver, heavily promoted a performance called Tibetan RoyalBanquet and Dance. President Jiang Zemin proclaimed that thisperformance rivals the natural wonders of Jiuzhaigou. If you dontpre-order the tickets now, they will surely sell out tomorrow. Hepeddled tickets to the passengers, three times, in ahalf-pressuring-half-beseeching way. My parents and I finally agreed tobuy one for 160 kuais (US$20). After the day touring theJiuzhaigou valley, my dad went to watch the performance. It wasmediocre, he reported back later. The venue was half empty, and therewere Tibetans selling tickets outside for 80 kuais. So myannoyance at being cheated boiled to anger when the next day we got thefull details of our itinerary for the next two days. Heres what wepaid for:Day 3- Got up at 6am- Toured a Tibetan medicine shop where doctors in white coats explain the cure-all benefits of herbal medicine- Toured a Prefecture-sanctioned souvenir shop where I bought a silver Tibetan bracelet and later found out its fake- Toured a store selling various kinds of all natural yak meat- Lunch and 4 hours touring the Huang Long Nature Preserve- 5 hours bus ride and arrived at the hotel in a small town at 10:30pmDay 4- Got up at 6am- Toured a facility providing water rafting where fortunately it was pouring rain so we didnt have to go through a rafting demo- Toured a Qiang-minority tea garden-Toured a factory of souvenirs made from yak horns where my motherbought a comb that, when used everyday, was to have special positivetherapeutic effects- Toured a jade factory where the manager offered us a special discount: a RMB 10,000 piece for RMB 600- Lunch and 4 hours bus ride back to ChengduIwas furious because it seemed half of the time we were being rushed todifferent shops where the tour guide and the driver could get a cut ofour purchases. On top of that, I was not sure how we got on that tourbus to begin with. I paid for a tour with the China Youth TravelService, one of the biggest and most reputable agencies in China.Instead, we were picked up by Mr. He from the Ba Shu Travels. Itwas on the way back to Chengdu when my anger had yielded to a sense ofirony that I had a talk with Mr. He. He explained the economics of theSichuan tourism industry thus to me:We each paid RMB 650 (aboutUS$80) for a 4-day package, which was getting cheaper every year due tointense price competition. The price covered 3-nights lodging, 3 mealseveryday for 4 days, admissions to two national parks andtransportation. Travel agencies actually lost money on eachtourist with that pricing. What they decided to do then was to sellthe travelers to semi-independent tour guides. The tour guides had topay deposits and pre-pay all the travelers expenses during the tripout of their own pockets. Only when they return from the trip wouldthey get reimbursed from the travel agencies, to avoid the tour guidesrunning away with the money. They had to pay RMB 30 extra per head tothe agencies to cover the agencies loss. Whatever left, from gettingcuts of the tourists purchases, they can then split with the driversand keep in their own pockets. So they had to hustle to getthe tourists to buy, because they did not receive any wage. To furthercomplicate the issue, the Aba Prefecture mandates that all tour groupsto Jiuzhaigou follow the same itinerary, staying at three differenttowns and visiting various shops, in a bid to boost local commerce. Thealternative” One can travel independently, pay more than twice thepackage price and suffer the difficulty of securing reliabletransportation. Many tourists complained about the mandatoryshop visits and bouncing among towns. Mr. He told me that during aprovincial-level meeting on reforming Sichuan tourism, the AbaPrefecture Governor banged the desk when he spoke the livelihood ofhis people depends on the forced shopping activities; tourism accountsfor 40% of the total GDP of the Prefecture which had been a povertyregion before the discovery of Jiuzhaigou. Nothing has been changed since. Cantyou segment the market and charge a higher price to those who want tospend more time in the park” I asked, following my MBA instinct. Mr. He shook his head. It wouldnt work in China. If you charge more, who would come”Iwasnt sure if he understood the concept of segmentation. Before I gota chance to elaborate, he added, The Chinese travelers are not likethose from overseas. The foreigner travelers want to be with nature. WeChinese He struggled to choose the right words. I graduallygot his point the number of nature-seeking Chinese travelers whosnot counting pennies is too low to justify a segmentation. I rememberedthe point-shoot-and-go crowds in Jiuzhaigo. Its all about goingsharing photos with the Joneses. I know tourism in Hainan andYunan provinces operate the same way. Otherwise we tour guides cantmake a living. He sighed, I think the rest of the country will go thesame way soon. This business is tough. The driver chimedin. Now we had no more shopping to do, they were getting increasinglycandid. Sometimes too many tourists in a group are too cheap to buyanything, then we end up losing money on the trip. Some drivers willget pissed off, and pretend that the bus has some safety problem anddrive off without the passengers. He chuckled. We are not like youeducated people. Making a living is tough. Why dont you guys complain to the tourism bureau” I asked. Whats the use” Mr. He stared straight ahead. In fact on June first, the Chengdu tour guides went on strike.Thedriver cut in excitedly, In the months of April and May, none of theGuangdong or Fujian tour agencies could get any packages to Jiuzhaigou.You know why” Many of the bus drivers went on strike too.Mr. He continued in his calm tone. Whats the use of that” The government intervened. Nothing has changed since.The driver laughed. He lit a cigarette and drove on. We fell silent. It started raining again outside. How long have you been doing this” I wanted to ask, why cant you leave this shitty business behind”InChengdu, only one year. Before that, I worked five years in Chongqingon the Three Gorges route after graduating from the tourism school. Iwas actually a migrant worker. He laughed slightly. They dammed theThree Gorges and few people visit there anymore. We are just among themillions displaced. I visited Beijing and thought of doing tourismthere since 2008 is coming. But my mandarin is not good enough, and thebusiness there is very different. So Im here, away from my wife and mybaby in Chongqing.This business, he added, is only for the young. Too demanding. Too little money.What can you do after your body cant keep up anymore” I meant to ask, why cant you choose something else”Maybeopen up a small shop. A small restaurant. Or an office job in a travelagency. The bus bounced up and down on the road still in construction.With our skills, what can we do” I looked away from him.Outside the Min River roared angrily as our bus raced along the river.He looked no older than 27. What a difference from the Beijingdiscussions of getting-rich-quick. What a difference from the San Frandiscussions of self-fulfillment. The bus pulled to a stopbehind a long line of trucks and tour buses packed bumper to bumper.There appeared to be an accident ahead. A group of kids had gatheredunder the leaky roof of a makeshift convenience store at the cornerwhere the road turned. Mr. He pointed to them. At least thePrefecture is benefiting economically from all this tourism. Those kidswouldnt be able to go to school without Jiuzhaigou. I looked at thekids and their faces and clothes dirty from mud. They were dartingbetween the buses and screaming with pleasure. The trafficstarted moving slowly. As we curved around the corner, a kid stoppedrunning, stood up straight and gave us a little-red-guards salute. Itsa custom here for the kids to salute and thank the tourists. Mr. Heexplained as I studied at the kids serious expression and his redscarf. At least some are benefiting.

1 Comments: Richard K said…

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1:34 AM  

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