By Ship

There are ferry connections from Incheon in South Korea and from Shi-monoseki and Kobe (www.celkobe.co. jp) in Japan to Tianjin; from Incheon and Shimonoseki (www.orientferry.co. jp) to Qingdao; from Incheon to Weihai; from Incheon to Dalian; from Osaka and Kobe in Japan to Shanghai

(www.fune.co.jp/chinjif and www. shanghai-ferry.co.jp); from Incheon and Busan in Korea to Yantai; and from Hong Kong and Macau to various points around Guangzhou (www. turbocat.com and www.cksp.com.hk) and Fujian provinces, notably Xiamen (www.cruise-ferries.com.hk). For details of service between China and South Korea, see http://english.tour2korea. com/coming/getting/bysea.asp.

11 Packages for the Independent Traveler

Since China reopened to foreign tourism in the early 1980s, all foreign tour operators have been required to use official state-registered travel companies as ground handlers. All arrangements in China were usually put together by one of three companies: China International Travel Service (CITS), China Travel Service (CTS), or China Youth Travel Service (CYTS). Controls are now loosening, foreign tour companies are now allowed some limited activities in China, and the range of possible Chinese partners has increased, but in effect, CITS and the like are the only companies with nationwide networks of offices, and most foreign tour companies still turn to them. They work out the schedule at the highest possible prices and send the costs to the foreign package company, which then adds its own administration charges and profit margins and hands the resulting quote to you. You could get the same price yourself by dealing with CITS (which has many offices overseas) directly. But you can get far better prices by organizing things yourself as you go along so, other than convenience, there's little benefit and a great deal of unnecessary cost to buying a package. Just about any tour operator will offer to tailor an itinerary to your needs, which means it will usually simply pass on the request to one of the state monoliths, and pass the result back to you. The benefit of dealing with the Chinese travel company directly is that you cut out the middleman, but if things go wrong, you will be unlikely to obtain any compensation whatsoever. If you book through a home tour operator, you can expect to obtain refunds and compensation if this becomes appropriate. In general, however, when organized through CITS, rail or air tickets for your next leg are reliably delivered to each hotel as you go. Never book directly over the Web with a China-based travel service or "private" tour guide. Many are not licensed to do business with foreigners, have not been licensed as guides, or will hugely overcharge and frequently mislead you (in the most charming way possible), and you will have no come-back at all.

If money is no object, then start with the list of tour companies below, nearly all of whom will arrange individual itineraries; or contact the CNTO (addresses on p. 17, earlier in this chapter) to find properly registered Chinese agencies who may help you. The Hong Kong Tourism Board and the Macau Government Tourism Office, in whose territories the tourism industry is well-regulated, can point you towards reputable operators and talented licensed private guides.

12 Escorted General-Interest Tours

Escorted tours are structured group tours with a group leader. The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation, but usually not domestic or international departure taxes.

Again, due to the distorted nature of the Chinese industry, escorted tours do not usually represent savings, but rather a significant increase in costs over what you can arrange for yourself. Foreign tour companies are for now required to work with state-owned ground handlers, although some do book as much as they can directly, and some work discreetly with private operators they trust. But even as markets become freer, most deals will continue to be made with the official state operators, if only for convenience. Tours are very attractive if you wish to see a large amount of the country very swiftly. Please read the brochures with as much skepticism as you would read a realtor's (one man's "scenic splendor" is another's "heavily polluted"), and read the following notes carefully.

Most tour companies peddle the same list of mainstream "must-sees,"—not all of which can hope to live up to the towering hype—featuring Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Guilfn, and the Yangzi River, with some alternative trips to Tibet, Yunnan Province, or the Silk Routes.

As with package tours, the arrangements within China itself are almost always managed by a handful of local companies, whose cupidity often induces them to lead both you and your tour company astray. Various costs, which should be included in the tour fee, can appear as extras; itineraries are altered to suit the pocket of the ground handler (local operator); and there are all sorts of shenanigans to separate the hapless tourist from extra cash at every turn, usually at whatever point the tour staff appears to be most helpful. (The driver has bottles of water for sale on the bus each day? You're paying three times the shop price.)

When choosing a tour company for China, you must, of course, consider cost, what's included, the itinerary, the likely age and interests of other tour group members, the physical ability required, and the payment and cancellation policies, as you would for any other destination. But you should also investigate the following: SHOPPING STOPS These are the bane of any tour in China, designed to line the pockets of tour guides, drivers, and sometimes the ground handling company itself. A stop at the Great Wall may be limited to only an hour so as to allow an hour at a cloisonné factory. In some cases the local government owns the shop in question and makes a regulation requiring all tours to stop there. The better foreign tour operators design their own itineraries and have instituted strict contractual controls to keep these stops to a minimum, but they are often unable to do away with them altogether, and tour guides will introduce extra stops whenever they think they can get away with it. Other companies, particularly those companies that do not specialize in China, just take the package from the Chinese ground handler, put it together with flights, and pass it on uncritically. At shopping stops, you should never ask or accept your tour guide's advice on what is the "right price." You are shopping at the wrong place to start with, where prices will often be 10 to 15 times higher than they should be. Your driver gets a tip, and your guide gets 40% of sales. The "discount" card you are given marks you for yet higher initial prices and tells the seller to which guide commission is owed. So ask your tour company how many of these stops are included, and simply sit out those you cannot avoid. TIPPING There is no tipping in mainland China. If your tour company advises you to bring payments for guides and drivers, some costs which should be included in your total tour cost are being passed on to you through the back door. Ask what the company's tipping policy is and add that sum to the tour price to make true comparisons. Some tour guides make as much as four hundred times what an ordinary factory worker or shop assistant makes, mostly from kickbacks from sights, restaurants, and shops, all at your expense, and from misguided tipping. Some tour operators say that if they cut out the shopping stops, they have to find other ways to pad the tour guides' income or there would be no tour guide. Shopping-free trips are nearly always accompanied by a higher price or a higher tip recommendation (which is the same thing). The guides are doing so well now that in some cases, rather than receive a salary from the ground handling company, they have to pay for the privilege of fleecing you. The best tour companies know how China works, make what arrangements they find unavoidable, and leave you out of it. Some take the middle path of collecting a small sum from each tour member, putting it into a central kitty, and disbursing as they must, but only for truly exceptional service, and at a proper local scale which short-time visitors from developed nations are incapable of assessing. Foreign tour leaders can be tipped according to the customs of their country of origin, and most companies issue guidelines for this. GUIDES Another problem with mainland guides is that they rarely know what they are talking about, although they won't miss a beat while answering your questions. What they will have on the tip of their tongue is an impressive array of unverifiable statistics, little stories of dubious authenticity but which will amuse you, and a detailed knowledge of the official history of a place which may bear only the faintest resemblance to the truth. The guides' main concern is to tell foreigners what they want to hear, and to impress them with the greatness of China. So you may be told that the Great Wall can be seen from outer space (silly), that China has 5,000 years of culture (what does this actually mean?), that one million people worked on building the Forbidden City (it was only 100,000 on last year's trip), and that the little old lady you've just met in a village has never seen a foreigner before or heard of the United States (she tells every group the same thing).

Ask your tour company if it will be sending a guide or tour manager from your home country to accompany the trip members all the way through and to supplement local guides. This is worth paying more for, as it ensures a smoother trip all around, and it helps you get more authoritative information. Otherwise, you're better off bringing background reading from home written by independent authorities. Guides in Hong Kong and Macau, however, are often extremely knowledgeable and both objective and accurate with their histories.

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Responses

  • suzanne
    Are China tour prices higher for Foreigners?
    7 years ago

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