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Sieren's China: Boosting tourism with better toilets

China has not yet become a go-to global tourist destination. The potential is there, but the country suffers from a poor image and a number of bureaucratic hurdles, says Frank Sieren.

The order came from the top: President Xi Jinping reiterated his view that China needed a "toilet revolution." He said that both urban centers and rural areas, especially those which were touristy, needed clean toilets, not the "holes in the ground" that are so off-putting to visitors. He even suggested that there should be warm water, perfumed facilities and wifi access. Xi Jinping was once again trying to boost an initiative that was launched in 2004, since when some 68,000 improved toilets have been installed. The state-run People's Daily estimates that some 64,000 will follow by 2020.

China received its most important facelift in recent history for the 2008 Olympics, when a national education program for "good behavior" was also launched. Taxi drivers, police officers, hairdressers and neighborhood committees were encouraged to brush up on their English to improve the stays of foreign visitors. The idea was for Beijing to come across as a world-class city.

Visa regulations a hindrance

Earlier this month, another measure was introduced to boost tourism in China. Tourists from 53 countries, including the US, Japan and all EU states, will in future have access to a new transit visa at the airport, so that they can travel without difficulty to Beijing and stay for up to six days. There are similar initiatives in Shanghai and Guangzhou. China is notorious for its complicated and comparatively expensive visa system, despite its being relaxed a little in 2015 since when travelers have been able to visit Beijing (and a handful of other cities) without a pre-arranged visa for 72 hours on condition that they are in transit — i.e. continuing on to Hong Kong or a third country. Inexplicable.

But visas are not the only reason why China has not yet become a tourist magnet, despite some unique sights. According to the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), travel to China rose only by 1 percent between 2005 and 2015, well below the average for the Indo-Pacific, to which travel in general rose by 80 percent. According to the China National Tourism Administration, in the first six months of 2017, over 62 million Chinese citizens went abroad. Only 14 million visitors came to China.

About 80 percent of these were from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Why? The Tourism Administration blames the global financial crisis. This might be the case in part but it is also true that China's image has been tarnished abroad by reports on pollution, as well as the one-party system. Chinese tourists abroad have not always helped to improve their country's reputation. Visitors to China are often pleasantly surprised by how little the reality corresponds to the image. Not many people know that China boasts a wealth of national parks that people can trek through undisturbed by huge tourist groups.

English doesn't get one very far

However, there is a clear lack of tourism infrastructure. Visitors need a guide, even in big cities. They also need basic knowledge of Mandarin to get around since few people speak English. Tourists in China cannot even resort to Google Maps or Google Translate for help, since these are blocked and only accessible if Virtual Private Network (VPN) software is downloaded at a cost.

From February onwards, the government even intends to block the use of VPNs. This will deal a bitter blow to tourism at a time when posting holiday photos on Facebook and Instagram (also blocked in China) has become as important as travel itself. Moreover, the life of tourists is almost made more difficult by the fact that digital technology is taking over China. More and more people use their phones to pay rather than cash but tourists cannot do this in China, as they do not have the necessary Chinese bank account, which is only available to those with a long-term residency permit.

Progress on question of toilets

Though China is experiencing a bike-sharing boom, tourists cannot use the bikes, which are literally everywhere, as they cannot easily download the apps to pay for them.

China's homogeneous population is another reason why the urban centers of the country's mainland might not be accessible to international visitors, compared with cities like Bangkok or Tokyo. Even China's most international city — the financial hub of Shanghai — attracts only about 150,000 to 200,000 visitors of non-Chinese origin — much less than 1 percent. Beijing could look to Hong Kong in future. In 2017, the special administrative region was one of the most popular cities in the world, with 25.6 million visitors. Beijing wants to surpass this by the Winter Olympics of 2022.

This week, the National Tourism Administration (CNTA) teamed up with the online map Amap to develop an app that lets users know where the next toilet is. The All Tourism Toilet Navigate System mentions 500,000 and even rates how comfortable they are, in English too.


For Thailand, a ‘Go Local’ move to spread tourism benefits

The Thai government has approved a series of tax deduction measures to promote seminars, leisure travel and MICE events in 55 second-tier tourist provinces nationwide all through 2018.

These will support the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)’s latest Go Local campaign, a landmark project to promote the kingdom’s secondary destinations, spread tourists between urban and rural areas, and even out traffic between peak and non-peak periods.

Go Local targets to improve the ratio of visitors – both domestic and foreign – to main cities vs secondary cities from 64:36 to 60:40. The aim is also to bring 10 million tourist arrivals into secondary cities and communities, generating an estimated 10 billion baht (US$312 million) in tourism revenue in 2018.

As part of the campaign, TAT will cooperate with domestic tour operators and travel agents to offer incentives such as discounted meals when buying local tour packages covering secondary destinations. Travellers will also be exempt from personal income tax for the amount paid out to tour operators, hotel operators or homestay operators for domestic tours to the 55 provinces, but not in excess of 15,000 baht.

Moreover, TAT will target Stock Exchange of Thailand-listed companies with a corporate tax exemption on income equal to 100 per cent of expenses for seminars and accommodation rooms, transport and other expenses incurred for conducting staff training seminars in the 55 provinces.

TAT will also introduce the TAT Plus discount card, which can be used in participating retail and dining merchants in secondary destinations as well as domestic airlines.

Other efforts include cooperating the Thai Restaurants Association, chefs, credit card companies and provincial authorities to promote the consumption of local food and purchase of local raw materials; as well as partnering attractions such as museums and theme parks to organise activities that celebrate the local culture.

Yuthasak Supasorn, TAT governor, said: “When local communities grow, the country grows. With travel and tourism now widely recognised as a major contributor to grassroots economies, job creation and income distribution, we are now taking specific measures to ensure that the benefits are better distributed across the breadth and depth of the entire kingdom.”

A Go Local Directory will be launched to provide specific information on dining, travelling and accommodation for getting tax deductions.


S-E Asia in the grip of chilly weather

Temperatures across South-east Asia have dipped beyond the norm in recent days, with non-stop rain and strong winds contributing to chillier tropics.

The thermostat has dropped to as low as 22 deg C in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and 17 deg C in Bangkok, cold bouts have been reported in Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, and ice slabs have even been found in parts of Myanmar.

The weather has become so chilly that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak tweeted yesterday: "Wow, Malaysia's weather is really cold today, just like in Jeddah!" He had just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia.

The Malaysian Meteorological Department attributed the chill to the north-east monsoon, but did not expect temperatures to dip further. The agency forecasts all-day rain to last until tomorrow in Kuala Lumpur.

In Thailand, the torrential rain in Bangkok this week is causing cooler-than-usual weather. The city's Department of Drainage and Sewerage told the Bangkok Post that another major temperature drop is likely to occur in the middle of next month.

Thailand has been experiencing a cold snap since last month, with fog blanketing its northern regions and frost forming on mountains.

In Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, the temperature fell to as low as 8 deg C, the lowest this winter for the city.

Though Cambodia was also struck by the cold weather this week, it was not as bad as last month, when the temperature plunge caused a sweater-shopping frenzy, and baby elephants had to wear hand-knitted coats.

The Philippines has been experiencing generally colder weather too, a result of the El Nino-La Nina weather dynamics, and the chilling Arctic air called the polar vortex. "We have seen a cold blast in the Pacific and Atlantic regions," said the local weather bureau's forecaster Nikkos Penaranda. The lowest temperature recorded recently was 12.2 deg C in the northern city of Baguio on Jan 1.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency said it recorded moderately lower-than-usual temperatures in the Riau Islands, an Indonesian province closest to Singapore, and in Nusa Tenggara Timur, east of the country's main tourist island of Bali. Yesterday, the two locations registered temperatures of 23 deg C to 25 deg C.

All other provinces are seeing relatively normal temperatures, state weather forecaster Risda Novikarani told The Straits Times.

Over in South Asia, the northern parts of India were also in the midst of a cold spell, but meteorological officials said this was well within the range for winter months. "Temperatures have fallen and the cold wave condition is more severe in January than December," said Mr Mahesh Palawat, director of private weather forecaster Skymet. "It is a normal winter."

According to India's Meteorological Department, minimum temperatures in most parts of northern India this week continued to be between 5 deg C and 10 deg C, and would remain so until Monday.

Trinna Leong in Kuala Lumpur, Raul Dancel in Manila, Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja in Jakarta and Nirmala Ganapathy in New Delhi


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