China's tourism rebounds from Tiananmen slump


November 12, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

XIAN, China -- They're back. The Milky Way is full of big noses again.

The Milky Way is a tongue-in-cheek label for that constellation of Chinese cities visited by most groups touring China, a circuit usually taking in at least Beijing, Xian and Guilin. Big nose is only one of the not so tongue-in-cheek nicknames reserved for foreigners here.

After the massacre of the Tiananmen Square protesters in Beijing in June 1989, most foreigners -- and virtually all tourists -- fled China like rats from a sinking ship.

As a result, one Westerner traveling through this historic city in west China at that time found himself in a rare position. At Xian's top hotel there was only one other guest.

"Two hundred staff and just two guests," a bellhop wryly noted. "We give you good service, huh?"

Save for a single security guard, the Westerner also ended up deliciously alone one morning before China's premier archeological attraction, the 2,000-year-old, terra cotta soldiers unearthed from the tomb of the first Chinese emperor.

The post-Tiananmen exodus of cash-laden foreigners, not only tourists but investors, was a disaster for China. But China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, reportedly counseled his more nervous colleagues to be patient: "Don't worry," he said. "The foreigners will come back."

Mr. Deng was right. The number of visitors here, which dropped dramatically in 1989 and 1990, has rebounded to an expected record total of 37 million this year.

That was more than evident in Xian recently. The luxury hotel that was virtually empty in 1989 was alive with guests. The site of the terra cotta army was so overrun with gawkers that they had to shove their way into prime viewing spots.

Well-heeled tourists increasingly face a softer time of it here. Across China, dozens of glitzy new hotels, their construction stalled by the 1989 massacre, now eagerly compete. Chinese airlines are boasting brand new planes and occasionally even somewhat considerate service.

But the Milky Way can still be a rough, if not downright hazardous, road to travel -- particularly by air.

The critical Beijing-Hong Kong air route is so swamped that independent travelers recently have been stuck for as long as a week waiting for an open seat.

Last summer in Tibet, a group of 250 European tourists staged a sit-in at government offices, the first such action by foreigners here, when no plane was available for their scheduled departure from the region's capital, Lhasa. About half opted for the arduous overland journey to Nepal. The others waited up to a week for another plane.

Last year outside Beijing, a Hong Kong couple on their honeymoon found themselves trapped in a cable car halfway to the top of the Great Wall, after the lift operators decided to go home and turned it off.

The new husband fell to his death when he smashed a window to call for help. His wife then tried to lower herself out the window, fell and spent seven weeks in a coma in a Chinese hospital before recovering.

China also has had four reported air crashes in recent months, all involving aircraft built in the former Soviet Union.

In Nanjing in July, 106 Chinese died when their plane burst into flames on take-off. In Beijing in September, a helicopter crashed near the Great Wall, killing 15, including 11 Japanese tourists.

In October in western Gansu Province, nine French visitors were among 14 fatalities when their chartered plane crashed into a mountain. Last weekend 33 people were killed when a helicopter crashed into a building while being used to drop leaflets for a cosmetics promotion.

But China still offers its special allure for foreigners, including its often endearing brand of earthy hospitality -- as two American women recently discovered in Xian.

Visiting a historical site there, they decided to patronize a public toilet, which usually are foul affairs containing open trenches over which one must publicly squat.

Entering the latrine, the two were momentarily confounded by the lack of a place to rest their purses, other than the very wet and terribly suspect floor.

No problem. The only other occupant, an elderly Chinese woman already squatting herself, smiled at them and graciously held out both her arms -- into which the two American tourists were relieved to hand their purses so that they could more easily go about their business.

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