Travel

A flood of strangers in a not-so-strange land

Diane Francis February 5 1979
Travel

A flood of strangers in a not-so-strange land

Diane Francis February 5 1979

A flood of strangers in a not-so-strange land

Travel

Brooklyn travel agent Pearl Lazowick remembers when luxury liners docked in Hong Kong harbor resorted to raffles among their passengers to decide who would get the handful of visas available to Peking. “People were praying for a win as though they had $100,000 riding on it,” she says. Now, even though visas to

China are more plentiful than ever before, demand still outstrips supply. North American tourists are this year seeking entry into China in unprecedented numbers, their curiosities perked with each headline describing the ever-changing kaleidoscope, both political and cultural, in the People’s Republic. The normalization of relations between Peking and Washington on Jan. 1 as well as China’s recent moves toward “democratization” have made the mysterious Middle Kingdom seem far less remote. And news photos of disco-dancing Chinese diplomats, women under antiquated hairdryers and Coca-Cola labels in Chinese have reinforced the impression that a new, Westernized cultural revolution is under way.

Last year some 3,000 Canadians were among 100,000 tourists worldwide who took a peek behind the Bamboo Curtain, according to figures from the Chinese embassy in Ottawa. Airlines and travel agencies negotiate individually with Peking for visas and exact totals are unavailable, but CP Air Vacation Sales Manager Clare Ash estimates 75 per cent more, or 3,500 Canadian tourists, will visit China in 1979—excluding government-arranged exchanges of busi-

nessmen, athletes and bureaucrats. Only shortages of hotel rooms, transportation facilities and Englishspeaking guides, he adds, are preventing a rush from turning into a stampede.

Alan Crotty, a Toronto spokesman for Thomas Cook Overseas Ltd., which initiated China tours last year, says almost all of Cook’s 300 tour places for

1979 were sold before the company’s glossy brochure even came off the presses. Peking first granted permission for 600, but chopped the total in half last December due to “overbookings.” Says Crotty: “The Chinese want to run before they can walk.” CP Air will be granted visas for 1,000 Canadian travellers for the first time this year. Its San Francisco office obtained permits for 1,000 last year but has been cut back to 900 for 1979. CP subsidiary, Elan Holidays, which is organizing sales, has already sold “about half” of its 20 group tours, which begin on Feb. 13, according to its program co-ordinator for China, Barbara Shannon. Travelling in groups of 50, with one CP and one Chinese guide, visitors will spend 12 nights in China and several more (depending on the package deal) in both Tokyo and Hong Kong. Prices range from $2,795 to $3,150 per person.

While well-known attractions such as the Great Wall and Peking’s Forbidden City are almost invariably included, itineraries vary as the Chinese try to tailor tours to group interests. Some feature trips to archeological digs, agri-

cultural operations or out-ofthe-way muséums.

Before 1978, only Western special interest groups, such as businessmen or farmers, were allowed in—and visas took up to two years to obtain, compared to 45 days now. But, says Shannon, not one visa application by CP has been refused, although the Chinese remain “touchy” about letting in journalists and refuse the Taiwanese altogether.

The rush in the U.S., according to travel industry spokesmen, is even more pronounced. The tour department of Pan American World Airways received 5,000 visas this year—double last year’s total. “Phones in sales offices ring off the hook,” each time a news story appears about China, says airline spokesman Bruce Haxthausen, and Pan Am could easily sell twice as many tours. Pan Am’s subsidiary, Inter-Continental Hotels Corp., recently signed an agreement, in partnership with Peking, to build 5,000 hotel rooms in China by 1981. And several other hotel chains are reportedly negotiating for similar deals.

The U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board has already received applications from Pan

Am and three other airlines to fly direct to Peking, if both governments hammer out a bilateral agreement. Unfortunately for CP, Ottawa’s diplomatic recognition of China in 1970 hasn’t enabled the company to get a head start on the tourism action. In 1974, one year after governmental agreement was reached to establish direct flights between Vancouver and Peking, the Chinese insisted on permission to pick up and drop off passengers in Japan. But the Canadian government did not reopen negotiations on the advice of CP who felt the Chinese demand was economically unfeasible. Now, according to CP Vice-President of Public Affairs H.D. Cameron, the Chinese have agreed to resume talks and also to discuss a hotel venture.

China fever rages even among seasoned travellers like Dorothy Friedlander of Toronto, who normally avoids the If-It’s-Tuesday-It-Must-Be-Peking type of tour. A teacher who has visited dozens of countries on four continents, she explains that “China remains the most exotic and mysterious” of destinations. Or, as Pearl Lazowick sees it: “When something has been denied to you for so long, you want it more than anything.”

Diane Francis