A fond jour­ney through time and space

Shanghai Daily - - FEATURE - (Xin­hua)

Forty years ago, when Zhang Gaoy­ong be­gan his job as a tour guide in Guilin, there were barely any do­mes­tic tourists in the city.

“Al­most all vis­i­tors to Guilin were for­eign­ers at that time,” Zhang said of the prime tourist desti­na­tion in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion.

Zhang, 64, was one of the first group of tour guides trained by China since the re­form and open­ing-up to cater to the tourism in­dus­try. Over the past four decades, the in­dus­try has sky­rock­eted.

The coun­try’s tourism sec­tor earned a to­tal rev­enue of 599.08 bil­lion yuan (US$86.6 bil­lion) dur­ing this year’s Na­tional Day hol­i­day, a rise of 9.04 per­cent from a year ear­lier. In the first half of 2018, the do­mes­tic tourism in­dus­try brought in 2.45 tril­lion yuan, up 12.5 per­cent year on year, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures re­leased by the Min­istry of Cul­ture and Tourism.

Guilin, in the north­ern part of Guangxi, is known for its pic­turesque karst moun­tains and beau­ti­ful rivers.

“Guilin was se­lected as one of the 24 cities to open their tourism mar­ket to for­eign vis­i­tors in 1973,” Zhang re­called. “But at the time, there were fewer than 1,000 vis­i­tors ev­ery year, and al­most all vis­its were lim­ited to ‘friendly ex­change pro­grams.’”

Af­ter the re­form and open­ing-up poli­cies were im­ple­mented, how­ever, the lo­cal tourism sec­tor started to take off.

“Tourism be­came an im­por­tant way to boost for­eign cur­rency re­serves, and of course Guilin be­came a fron­tier for China’s tourism de­vel­op­ment,” he said.

Be­cause al­most all vis­i­tors were for­eign­ers, de­mand for tour guides like Zhang was very high. Zhang, who pre­vi­ously worked in a lo­cal ship­ping com­pany and speaks de­cent English, was cho­sen to work as a tour guide.

“Be­ing a tour guide was more than just a job,” he said. “It was a tremen­dous honor be­cause tour guides rep­re­sent the im­age of China due to fre­quent con­tact with for­eign­ers,” Zhang said. Dur­ing this pe­riod, there were only three travel agen­cies in Guilin, with no more than 30 tour guides.

“Some­times when there were not enough tour guides, the agen­cies would ‘bor­row’ uni­ver­sity English teach­ers to fill their place,” he said.

In the early days, there were no scripts for the tour guides. In­stead, they had to im­pro­vise when in­tro­duc­ing lo­cal at­trac­tions to for­eign vis­i­tors.

“We were scared of be­ing asked ques­tions be­cause more of­ten than not, we didn’t un­der­stand them,” he said. “If they asked ques­tions that we failed to un­der­stand, we asked them to write them down on a piece of pa­per, and we would check our dic­tio­nar­ies word by word af­ter re­turn­ing home.”

To im­prove his English, Zhang took night classes. He even went to Aus­tralia for a year to study English.

“The early travel itin­er­ary in Guilin was sim­ple: Trav­el­ers only vis­ited two moun­tains, a river and a karst cave,” he said. “Af­ter that, they just roamed the streets in Guilin by them­selves.”

Most lo­cals had never seen the blue-eyed “mot­ley bunch of for­eign­ers” and would of­ten gather in groups to stare at the for­eign tourists cu­ri­ously.

“The for­eign­ers were cu­ri­ous about the lo­cals too, and they would use their cam­eras to take pic­tures,” he said.

“Some­times they de­vel­oped the pic­tures and sent them to me af­ter re­turn­ing to their home coun­try as a gift of grat­i­tude for be­ing ‘an amaz­ing tour guide.’”

Zhang said that dur­ing the ini­tial stages of re­form and open­ing-up, many Chi­nese had enough food and clothes, but trav­el­ing was still con­sid­ered a lux­ury. As time went by, peo­ple’s lives im­proved and changes be­gan to be no­ticed.

“In the 1990s, more Chi­nese tourists started to ap­pear on the streets in Guilin,” Zhang said.

In 1999, China es­tab­lished three “Golden Week” hol­i­days, with seven days off dur­ing each year’s Spring Fes­ti­val, May Day and the Na­tional Day hol­i­days. Im­proved fi­nan­cial con­di­tions and the “Golden Weeks” con­trib­uted to the ex­plo­sive growth of the tourism mar­ket.

“As the num­ber of do­mes­tic tourists in­creased, the fa­cil­i­ties in Guilin also saw a com­plete facelift: Tons of tourist at­trac­tions were de­vel­oped, and five-star ho­tels sprang up like bam­boo shoots in the spring,” he said, quot­ing a Chi­nese say­ing that de­picts high-speed growth.

Ear­lier this year, a new high-speed train sta­tion opened in Guilin. The Wu­tong Sta­tion, in Guilin’s Lin­gui Dis­trict, is the ninth high-speed train sta­tion in the city. Last year, Guilin re­ceived more than 82 mil­lion tourists, gen­er­at­ing 97.1 bil­lion yuan.

Trans­porta­tion author­i­ties in Guilin said the num­ber of tourists who take high-speed trains to the city is in­creas­ing.

Ev­ery day, 216 such trains con­nect the city with 18 prov­inces, cities and au­ton­o­mous re­gions.

“Af­ter 40 years of de­vel­op­ment, tourism has be­come an in­sep­a­ra­ble part of Chi­nese peo­ple’s lives,” Zhang said. “As China’s re­form and open­ing-up con­tin­ues, more for­eign­ers are ex­pected to visit China, and more and more Chi­nese tourists will travel to other coun­tries.”

For­eign vis­i­tors in Guilin in 2001. — IC

Tourists visit Longjing Vil­lage in Guilin dur­ing this year’s Na­tional Day hol­i­day. The coun­try’s tourism sec­tor gen­er­ated a to­tal 599.08 bil­lion yuan (US$86.6 bil­lion) dur­ing this year’s Na­tional Day hol­i­day, a year-on-year rise of 9.04 per­cent. — IC

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