Jian Xiao woke up early on May 1 to go to Tanzhe, a 1,600-year-old temple in suburban Beijing. He thought it was a good way to avoid the crowds who would usually go to more famous sights during the Labour Day holidays. He was wrong, as thousands of Chinese went to the same temple that morning.
"As I drove near the place, I could see a sea of people filling up the usually tranquil temple area," he says. Jian turned back and spent the rest of the one-week public holiday at home.
Jian should count himself lucky. Many of the estimated 46m Chinese who went sight-seeing in the country between May 1-7 had an arduous time getting a ticket to the destination was the first headache, as trains and flights to popular places were fully booked. Many were bumped off their reservations at the last minute.
Another hurdle was getting a hotel room, as room rates soared and hotels of all grades were heavily booked. "The May 1 period was fantastic for us," says Mr. Robert Hogenstijn, general manager of the' luxurious Sheraton Suzhou. The leisure market makes up about half of the hotel's business, with residents in nearby Shanghai accounting for much of the weekend and holiday traffic. Being a historical city ,with many ancient attractions, Suzhou is a popular destination for domestic tourism.
At the lower end of the market, some of the less fortunate travellers during the May holiday ended up sleeping in hotel corridors, in 24-hour bath houses and even inside buses. Then, there were long queues outside imperial gardens, museums, temples, exhibition halls, parks, zoos and department stores.
Even for urban Chinese used to teeming masses, it was all too much. They filed complaints to government departments and wrote angry letters to newspapers about their bad experiences. "The holiday has been a night-mare for me," comments a visitor from Hubei, who drove around Beijing in a taxi for hours to find a room to sleep on the evening of April 30.
Welcome to the chaotic world of domes-tic tourism in China. The industry has taken off, but the country's travel facilities remain inadequate. Last year, Mainland Chinese made 700m trips within China, spending a total of Yn283.1bn on domestic travel, an increase of 18.4 percent from a year ago. By contrast, income from foreign tourists has grown at a slower rate, from US$12bn in 1997 to US$12.6bn in 1998.
These statistics should be treated with caution, however, as it is difficult to distinguish between business and leisure travel and to differentiate spending by locals and foreigners. Domestic tourist data compiled by China National Travel Administration is derived from information supplied from its nationwide travel agencies.
The trend for longer holidays means that domestic tourism is set to grow faster. The government says by 2020 revenue generated from domestic tourism will amount to Yn3,300bn, or 8 percent of GDP.
"We have the resources and should aim to be a tourism superpower," wrote the Beijing-based China Economic Times.
Travel for leisure used to be reserve for privileged high-ranking officials and the nouveau riche but the masses have also caught the travel bug.
One reason is growing affluence, especially among young city dwellers. Chinese people used to spend their spare money on lavish banquets, karaoke entertainment and luxury clothing. Now, there are more ways to spend money, including travel for pleasure.
Overseas travel is still the luxury of a few hundred thousand Chinese, but travel within the country has become affordable to millions. Ms. Rita Goh, communications manager for Gloria International Hotels, says the rich prefer overseas group travel, to destinations such as Thailand and Malaysia. However, group travel within China is also growing, she says. Gloria's two hotels in Hainan's holiday resort of Sanya are among the most profitable of its 10 Mainland properties. To back up this trend, China's second largest hotel operator, Jian Guo, is building tourist villas on Hainan and at other holiday spots since it is also actively targeting the domestic tourist market.
Domestic tourism took off when the government decided to grant its people more and longer public holidays as a way to spur consumption. First, there was the five-day week, which prompted millions of urban Chinese to leave the city during their free two-day weekends. In suburban Beijing, for example, golf courses, theme parks, aquariums and hot-spring resorts have sprung up to cater to the new leisure class.
Last October, Beijing extended its usual two to three days of National Day holidays to an unprecedented 10 consecutive days, in celebration of the republic's 50th anniversary. During Chinese New Year in February this year, there were another 10 consecutive days of holidays, up from the usual three to five days in the past. On both occasions, mil-lions of Chinese took time off to go sightseeing outside their home cities.
This time, the Labour Day holiday was an even bigger success, breaking all records in domestic tourism. From May 1-7, there were 46m Chinese tourists across the country, three times more than the official forecast, reported Guangming Daily. They spent an impressive Yn18.1bn over the period.
During a hectic week, there were a record 15,283 flights bringing 1.7m Chinese to their travel destinations. Flights to popular places such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Xiamen, Xian, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Kunming were fully booked weeks before the holidays. Trains, too, were bursting with passengers, carrying a record 27.12m people during that week. Coaches and buses carried another 175m passengers during the same period, Xinhua news agency reported.
Such numbers brought much-needed revenue to the troubled transport industry. In recent years, airline companies and the rail authorities have been losing money as a result of shrinking demand and excess capacity. The holiday rush provided welcome relief and the government will be under pressure to.