We’ll take more bear of you

British Airways launches debut Chengdu flight to lure tourists to UK

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Pandering to Chinese demand: Willie Walsh (centre) in Chengdu

In January 1999 Chengdu still seemed like a fairly exotic place. When the editor of this publication landed there that year, the first thing he noticed were the baggage handlers determinedly riding out towards the plane on their bicycles.

Much has changed at Chengdu airport since then. That includes the number of annual passengers, which has grown from 5.5 million to 32 million in the last 12 years. And last week the city passed another milestone in its aviation history when British Airways made its maiden flight to Chengdu (the three-times-a-week service is the UK carrier’s third route to mainland China after Beijing and Shanghai).

This time it wasn’t bicycles greeting BA’s arrival but a water salute from four of the airport’s fire engines. What got more attention was the aircraft’s nose, which had been painted to resemble a panda.

National Business Daily says Chengdu is engaged in a battle to be China’s ‘fourth largest aviation hub’ (Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are ahead) capitalising on its position as one of western China’s largest and most vibrant cities. Flights link Chengdu with 23 international cities including Paris, Melbourne and Doha, as well as Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Now a London flight can be added, which Western China Metropolis Daily sees as “one of the heavyweight routes” required to cement Chengdu’s status.

Willie Walsh, the boss of International Airlines Group, the parent of British Airways, was on the debut flight too. And not long after take-off he vented his frustration at the UK government’s visa policy, telling the journalists on board it was dissuading the Chinese from visiting Britain.

“We need a visa regime that is less bureaucratic,” Walsh commented. “People need to feel that the UK is actually welcoming. There is a perception in China that the UK doesn’t want to see Chinese tourists or business.”

The Guardian reports that Walsh added: “The government talks a good talk about wanting to do business in China, but if they’re going to translate that into real opportunity they’re going to have to look more closely at the visa issue.”

A British visa, Walsh noted, costs more than the single Schengen visa that allows Chinese tourists to visit Germany, France, Italy and Spain. The British system is more onerous too, involving a nine-page form and requiring applicants to have their finger prints taken.

According to The Independent, another UK newspaper, the BA boss claimed that Chinese tour operators are bypassing the UK on European trips because of the bureaucracy. “They say it’s too much hassle to apply for two visas,” Walsh complains.

Some 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited European countries on Schengen visas last year, while only 179,000 went to the UK.

Walsh’s airborne press conference seemed to have an impact. The Telegraph reported on Saturday that British Home Secretary Theresa May has agreed to introduce a new joint visa system with the Schengen countries “to attract more tourists from China”.

The proposed scheme will let Chinese apply for a UK visa on the same form that they use for Schengen access. This should make it simpler and cheaper for Chinese visitors to get a visa that will allow them into Britain (and the government hopes, the UK’s shops).

Any improvement on the visa rules will be a bonus for Walsh’s new Chengdu route too. In order to drum up interest, a special Rmb2,800 ($457) economy class fare was being offered by BA for bookings made before September 2. More broadly Walsh predicts that the number of outbound Chinese tourists will grow 17% per year, and said the maiden Chengdu to London flight was 70% full.

BA says it is investing in the route as part of its broader China strategy, and expects to increase the number of flights per week to five within a year. From next summer the airline intends to fly its new Dreamliner 787s from Chengdu.

For Britons tempted to travel the other way, WiC recommends Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper for in-flight reading, given that the book is largely about the city and its spicy food.

And while Chengdu is famous for its pandas, prospective vistors might be less aware that the region was once known for its elephant population. This is something to be learned from a visit to Jinsha, a massive archeological find that was accidentally discovered by a local property developer in 2001. This ancient settlement traces Chengdu’s history as a cultural centre back to 1000 BC when it was populated by the Shu people.

No one is sure exactly why (sacrifices to the water gods is one theory) but the Shu buried a lot of elephant tusks. Hundreds were discovered at the site, offering evidence that elephants roamed the region 3,000 years ago.

The local government has spent a small fortune on this vast museum at Jinsha which, like Xi’an’s Terracotta Army, is built around the excavated area. Little known outside China (and not much appreciated inside the country too) Jinsha was blissfully free of crowds on the Sunday afternoon that WiC visited last November.

For a country that doesn’t have much of a reputation for its museums, Jinsha is a revelation, with a modern design and excellent guides who can give detailed answers to your questions about the Shu and the artefacts (if you don’t speak Chinese you’ll need to bring someone who can translate, however).

And a final travel tip: it’s hard to find bland cuisine in Chengdu, but we strongly recommend dining at the Yu Family Kitchen (see WiC173).

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