AND HOW DO YOU BAMBOO?
It’s not just adorable pandas luring Aussies to Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province. This up-andcoming destination whistles a tune that attracts many travellers, with its spicy street food and teahouse scene. Webjet country manager David Galt says China is firmly in their top 10 destinations for Australians and year-on-year bookings are up just over 20 per cent.
“The discovery side is what’s attracting people,” he says. “We’re seeing good demand for both flight-only or flight-led travel as well as the package tour.”
Gen Y is leading the charge when it comes to independent travel with 26 to 35-year-olds the biggest buyers of flights to China.
“Increased capacity from the likes of China Southern has been a big driver of flight volume,” Galt says. Air China also launched a direct service between Sydney and Chengdu in November last year.
On the ground, the new Xi’an-Chengdu railway – which will catapult passengers along the 643km-route at a speed of 250km per hour – is set to be opened by the end of 2017, slashing travel time between the two cities from 16 hours to three.
Even if you’ve never heard of Chengdu, you’ll be aware of its most famous residents, the giant pandas. A visit to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is a highlight of Webjet Exclusives’ Treasures of China tour, as well as many other China tour operators.
Here you’ll have the chance to see the black-and-white giants on their home turf and see first-hand the conservation efforts that have helped to grow the giant panda population by 17 per cent in a decade, resulting in the species being removed from the endangered list. (There’s still much to be done with less than 2000 giant pandas remaining in the wild.)
A night at the Sichuan opera is one of the lesser-known treats, with the mystifying bian lian (face changing) antics of its masked performers.
While you’re soaking up the laid-back lifestyle – by China standards – of this city of 14 million, wander through the People’s Park to see the marriage market where parents search for worthy suitors for their unmarried offspring.
Then settle into one of the city’s famous teahouses for a never-ending cup and experience an ear picking, if you’re up for it.
The kick of Sichuan cuisine is what led UNESCO to name Chengdu the second City of Gastronomy back in 2010. Sample your way along the weird and wonderful street food stalls and test your spice threshold with a boiling cauldron of Sichuan hot pot. Galt says affordability is also a big driver of interest in travel to China, with packages including international flights from as low as $112 a day.
WHEN TO VISIT
While summer in Chengdu can be humid and the months of July and August see the largest rainfall, it’s also when baby pandas are usually born. Cue cuteness appeal. “We see, by far and away, the most demand for departures in June, July and August,” Galt says.
WHEN TO BOOK
If you’re travelling independently, you shouldn’t need to book too far out.
“On the flight side of the business, the vast majority of people are booking one to three months in advance,” Galt says.
But if you’d prefer to put yourself in the hands of an experienced local guide, now is the time to book a 2018 tour.
“We’ve already had some dates sell out and we’ve got some dates that are already down to limited availability,” he says.