A Nation on Holiday

A Nation on Holiday

(Image: China Daily)

Every year, National Day on October 1 marks the beginning of a week-long holiday for people across China. Often called the Golden Week holiday, this is the time when people visit other cities and when those who are living away from their families return home. It is the week of crowds everywhere, kilometres-long traffic jams stretching outside major cities, overpriced hotel rooms and sold-out trains and flights. Even restaurant reservations and theme park tickets are hard to come by. Despite this, millions of people keep choosing to travel at this time. There is one very simple explanation for this apparently stupid decision – China’s holiday system.

In most Chinese companies, employees are not permitted any paid holiday allowance, apart from during national holidays designated by the government. While it is easy to see the logic behind this system – it forces firms to give their employees a few days of paid holidays a year, something they might not do otherwise – it has now become entirely unsustainable, with congestion and crowding plaguing all aspects of life.

In order to tackle this problem, a new tourism law came into force on October 1, just as the week-long madness was about to start. The new law is principally designed to regulate the Chinese tourism market, which was until now largely rife with opportunistic tour guides and operators taking advantage of the previous lack of regulation. One of the most common complaints of Chinese tourists concerns the “forced shopping trips”, endemic on tours throughout China. Hoping to earn a little extra on the side, tour guides collude with shop owners and agree to take all their groups through a certain shop, often bullying them into buying something. There have even been reports of tourists being locked inside shops until they purchased something. In the end, of course, the tour guides receive a commission from the shop owners.

The new law sets out the rights of tourists, safety standards requirements, and the protocol for the handling of complaints. The law also addresses a broad range of problems besides forced shopping trips, including sudden admission fee increases at scenic spots during national holidays. It is this last point which has won the most plaudits for the law, which came into effect on the eve of Golden Week. It is common for tourist attractions across China to increase their fees ahead of this holiday, but the law has helped curb the problem this year. This, however, does not necessarily mean that scenic spots won’t be able to continue rising their prices during holidays, as the law only stipulates that they have to announce the price increases six months in advance, meaning that tourist attractions can still continue with this practice, they just need to plan it in advance and let the relevant government departments know. However, it does make it more of a hassle for them to increase their admission fees.

What is interesting about this new law is that it includes a very optimistic provision addressing the responsibility of tourists to behave properly, and “abide by the norms of civilised tourist behaviours”. During the holiday, most government websites also displayed messages encouraging Chinese tourists to be “civilised” when travelling. This was meant to improve the behaviour and reputation of Chinese tourists. Earlier this year, the case of a Chinese student who carved his name on the wall of a 3,500-year-old Egyptian temple brought the behaviour of Chinese tourists into the spotlight, causing embarrassment for the government, who had yet again to make apologies for the behaviour of its tourists overseas. Last year two Chinese passengers broke into so serious a scuffle on a flight from Zurich to Beijing that the plane was forced to return to the Swiss capital; and in July of this year, two groups of Chinese tourists were caught on video brawling and fighting in a lavender field in France over the best position to stand to take photographs. However, since it is basically impossible to enforce this provision except in a small number of extreme cases, no penalties are stipulated for misbehaving tourists in the new law.

There is much to be gained from developing and regulating the Chinese tourism market and industry, which employs over 63 million people across different sectors in China. Chinese overseas trips are expected to hit 100 million in 2014, and China has already become the world’s third-biggest recipient of tourists. Also important to take into account are trips within China, which amounted to 2.9 billion in 2013. During this year’s National Day Golden Week, Chinese railways carried over 65 million passengers, and on National Day itself the total number of passengers travelling on trains was 10.33 million. Considering the importance of this market, one must wonder why the government took so long to introduce regulations.

Although it remains to be seen whether the new law will be able to reduce the number of scams and ridiculous price increases that abound in the Chinese tourism market, it is definitely a step in the right direction. Anyone who has travelled in China during the Golden Week or any other national holiday, will have suffered the China-sized crowds and traffic jams, which put their Western counterparts to shame. Chinese people will advise you against travelling during national holidays, and yet millions and millions of them travel at this time. But only because they have no choice. As long as the government doesn’t tackle the underlying cause of these problems, namely the Chinese holiday system, the Golden Week will continue being a time of huge crowds and overpriced services. 

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