This past summer, a tourist looking to go to southeastern China for a weekend hike in Huangshan — a mountain ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s most popular tourism destinations — could have been forgiven for having a bit of sticker shock upon arriving. Prior to September, those visiting the park during its peak season were expected to fork over a cool 230 yuan ($33) a ticket — a not-so-insignificant sum in a province where the average resident has just 1,800 yuan in monthly discretionary income. And that’s not even including the 170 yuan needed to ride the park’s two cable cars — a near necessity for anyone looking to spend less than two full days on the mountain.
Chinese tourists have been complaining about exorbitant ticket prices at the country’s parks for years now, to little effect. According to a report issued by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the average admission price in 2014 to one of the country’s 5A scenic spots — the top rating a tourism destination can receive in China — amounted to 13.6 percent of the average rural resident’s monthly earnings and 4.9 percent of the average urbanite’s wages.
China’s ticket prices are even expensive in comparison to more developed countries. At Yellowstone in the United States, for example, a carload of people can gain entry for just $2 more than the price of a single ticket to Huangshan, and hikers can enter for just $20. And while in other countries such tickets are typically all-inclusive — offering access to all the facilities and amenities the park has to offer — in China, they merely guarantee visitors the right to walk through the door. Full access to all attractions can require several additional tickets and drive up the overall cost by a few hundred yuan per person.
China’s parks are all state-owned: So why, many Chinese wonder, do they cost so much for the country’s residents to visit? The short answer is an outdated business model that grossly overemphasizes the importance of ticket revenues — as opposed to accommodations and dining options — and which is out of touch with the needs and desires of contemporary tourists. It’s a system that actively incentivizes officials to treat the country’s most beautiful and historic sites as cash cows.
The roots of this problem are embedded in the history of China’s early attempts to use tourism to boost local economies — particularly in those remote parts of the country ill-suited to manufacturing. In the absence of well-defined regulations and under pressure to produce quick results, it didn’t take long for local governments and the park management units they established to become reliant on ticket profits.
Today, the issue is compounded by China’s park rating system, which is based on a range of factors, including a park’s cultural and historical significance, its reputation, infrastructure improvements and amenities, and the level of service it provides visitors. These ratings have a direct impact on a park’s bottom line, since the higher a park is rated, the more it can charge for entry. Parks thus try their best to obtain a better rating, pushing the ticket prices higher.
This mindset affects more than just the parks themselves. By sucking tourists dry with ticket purchases, parks discourage travelers from spending more time and money in the area immediately surrounding the park. Instead, many visitors cut costs by limiting their trips to a day, or even half a day.
Yet there is little incentive for local governments to try and develop a better business model, since they profit handsomely from the current arrangement. Although park startup costs can be high, maintenance costs are generally low, and ticket revenues flow directly into official coffers — whereas money spent at local businesses in the surrounding towns does not.
There are signs, however, that the central government is finally ready to step in and address the problem. This June, China’s National Development and Reform Commission — one of the country’s leading economic management agencies — ordered ticket prices to be permanently slashed at state-run scenic spots, giving parks until the weeklong October National Day holiday to comply. In response, Huangshan cut ticket prices for the high season from 230 yuan to 190 yuan. But other parks, such as Langshan in central China, have pushed back, cutting ticket prices while drastically raising the price of the park’s sightseeing buses to compensate.
While it is a relief to see the government finally taking action against out-of-control pricing schemes, top-down measures will never be an effective solution to the problem. As the case of Langshan shows, managers will comply with the letter of the law, while still finding a way to violate its spirit. To improve the state of China’s parks, park officials and their government counterparts must first admit the current ticket-driven model is fundamentally flawed, and ill-suited to the demands and expectations of contemporary tourists.
As China’s economy has grown, the purchasing power — and expectations — of Chinese tourists has risen along with it. Today’s Chinese travelers crave a more immersive, diverse, and personalized tourism experience. Yet domestic parks continue to focus on spectacle, building pricy add-ons such as light shows, viewing platforms, and glass-bottom bridges which detract from the natural beauty that visitors came to see in the first place.
Instead of doubling down on the same old ideas, park managers should work with local officials to integrate their parks into the local economy. Officials have long taken a far too narrow view of the tourism experience, one better suited to the era of bus tours — in which Chinese tourists would show up to a park, buy a ticket, take a few photos, and then leave — than the needs of modern travelers. This has caused them to miss out on a wide range of potential commercial opportunities. A site like Huangshan, for instance, could serve as the centerpiece and landmark attraction of an entire complex of tourism, leisure, and entertainment amenities.
China boasts some of the greatest tourism resources in the world. From breathtaking natural scenery to ancient ruins, it should be a global leader in the industry. Instead, the country is plagued with derivative, outdated business models; backward management practices; and development priorities that sometimes do more harm than good. This isn’t the 1980s. Today’s Chinese consumers have plenty of other ways to spend their leisure time and disposable incomes. China’s tourism industry must either change with the times, or risk being left behind.
Translator Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell
(Header image: Tourists watch the sun set from atop Huangshan, a mountain in Anhui province, Sept. 17, 2018. Fang Lihua/Qianlong/VCG)