Economy

Crowded out

Is it time to break up Golden Week in the wake of October’s holiday chaos?

Travel advisory: do not visit the Great Wall during the October Golden Week

Thierry Gillier, the founder of the fashion house Zadig & Voltaire, has a rather unconventional way of promoting his new boutique hotel in Paris. In what now looks like a major faux pas, Gillier assured the discerning readership at Women’s Wear Daily last month that his new hotel, which is due to open in 2012, would be an exclusive place. He went on: “We are going to select guests. It won’t be open to Chinese tourists, for example.”

Instead Gillier wanted to attract sophisticated guests looking for “quiet hotels with a certain privacy”.

Gillier has since apologised, with Women’s Wear Daily changing his reference to “Chinese tourists” to “busloads of tourists”. But his comments had already hit a nerve, especially on Chinese social media sites, with many calling him “racist” and “discriminatory”. If he returns to his original plan, Gillier’s fashion house could pay a hefty price. On average Chinese tourists spend Rmb236,000 ($37,742) per trip in France much of it on luxury goods. That’s at least five times more than American visitors, according to Brandchannel, an online resource.

Holidaying abroad for the Chinese is a relatively recent luxury but members of the new middle class now look eager to explore the far corners of the world. HSBC estimates that by 2015 more than 120 million people in China will travel overseas annually, up from 60 million last year.

This tendency to travel outside China looks like being encouraged by some of the frustrations of domestic travel. Indeed for those who just did so during the Golden Week national holiday – which ended on October 7 – the conclusion is clear: travel anywhere but within China.

The national break unleashed a deluge of tourists, and the media was soon flooded with articles complaining about the massive strain on transport and tourist facilities.

The reason the congestion was particularly bad this time? In part, because of the unprecedented length of this year’s early-October holiday (eight consecutive work-free days instead of the usual seven). This was caused by the compression of two public holidays into one: the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on a variable date in September according to the lunar calendar, and the National Day holiday, which began on October 1.

That wasn’t the only factor in the mass migration. The central government decided to abolish motorway tolls for cars during the holiday period. It was the first time in a decade that the expressways had been toll-free and many families were keen to take advantage to get away.

In fact, the Ministry of Transport said that there were 38.2% more vehicle journeys on toll roads during this year’s Golden Week holiday than in the same period last year. State news agency Xinhua believes that the waiving of tolls played a big part in the gridlock (see WiC167 for our article on Beijing’s traffic chaos during the holiday).

The Wall Street Journal reports that almost half the Chinese population left their homes to visit tourist sites, up 40% from 2011. And with so many people travelling at the same time the results were anything but a relaxing excusion. “Congested, overflowing, dirty and just not all that much fun,” was the verdict of Sanxiang City News from Hunan.

The newspaper also describes the submersion of Hunan province’s scenic spots under a tidal wave of travelling public. Dadong Mountain district in Xiangtan received almost 30,000 visitors on the third day of the holiday. For the statistically inclined, that was a year-on-year increase of 2,341% (a stat visitors doubtless pondered as they queued up for Dadong’s toilets).

Similarly, the Forbidden City in Beijing attracted 182,000 visitors a day during the holidays, its highest daily attendance ever. Police said at least 900,000 people had visited Hangzhou’s West Lake (which UNESCO calls: “an idealised fusion between humans and nature”) in a single day, almost 20% up from last year.

And who said travel is supposed to broaden the mind? “We saw absolutely nothing but people’s heads,” Guo Zhijun of Henan province told the China Daily after visiting the Forbidden City. “We wanted our 11 year-old son to learn something from the trip, but we only ended up exhausted.”

The most chaotic scenes took place in Mount Huashan in Shaanxi province, says Shenzhen Daily. Known as “the most precipitous mountain under heaven”, the huge influx of tourists forced the cable car service out of action as the numbers trying to clamber aboard surpassed its maximum capacity. Over 10,000 people were left stranded on the mountain overnight.

The madness of mass travel has sparked debate about whether China’s mandatory Golden Week holiday system still makes sense. There are only two long holidays in the country every year – the Spring Festival (in January or February) and National Day holiday (in October). Part of the economic logic forGolden Weeks was to drive consumption, as people spent on hotels and tourist hotspots. Evidently it has succeeded, but perhaps too well with neither the transportation infrastructure nor the resorts themselves seeming able to cope. CBN reckons one solution would be for the government to restore the Golden Week holiday in May (eliminated in 2009) – tourism volumes might then be spread between the two weeks.

One netizen noted that the current situation was a lose-lose: if you went somewhere in China you just got angry and were ripped off by hoteliers and others in the tourist industry; if you stayed at home, on the other hand, you felt a chump for wasting the week-long holiday and were berated by your family.


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