|On June 24, the World Health Organization took Beijing
off its SARS no-travel|
advisory list. That day, I felt compelled to go
to China as soon as possible. I wanted to
reassure myself that it was
okay. Had anything changed? I did not want to go before the
its travel ban. There had been stories about officials in the U.S. and
quarantining travellers who had been to infected areas. When
friends in Toronto heard of my
plans, they asked, "Aren't you afraid?"
"No more than I'm afraid to live in Toronto!" I
in China from August 18 to September 3, carrying an N-95 mask in my
I also decided to avoid hospitals, and wild animal markets. I
went to Beijing, Xining in
northwestern Qinghai province, Shanghai,
Shenzhen and Hong Kong. My first surprise was
the difficulty in getting
a plane from Toronto to Hong Kong. Business people took up most of
seats. Because of SARS, Cathay Pacific had cancelled many of its flights.
It wasn't until
after September 1 that schedules were back to normal. I
ended up flying Air Canada to Beijing first and returning from Hong Kong.
Even then I had a problem getting my flights as students returning to
school with their families joined the business people in taking up the
Our cabin crew passed out health questionnaires that asked
where we could be
contacted. Pamphlets informed us where to go should
we feel sick later. At Beijing airport a
temperature scanner stood
unused. Hotels and schools had put away their thermometers. Another
surprise was feeling that I had been away for years, but actually, I had
only been away from Hong Kong seven months. So much had happened in the
intervening time that my absence felt like forever.
I had to adjust
to the fact that time had not stopped. In China in August, SARS
passe. I found only a few signs urging people to wash their hands
or refrain from spitting,
though only a couple of months before,
Beijing had been disinfecting its streets.
Advertisements for expensive
condos, cars and fancy cameras blared out from most billboards.
The Capital Hotel was the only hotel still using an unobtrusive
temperature scanner. If anyone
with a fever passed its lens, an alarm
went off and the machine took a photo. (So far, no one
needed to be
sent to a hospital, managers said.) The Holiday Inn Lido was one of many
hotels still disinfecting its elevators once or twice an hour. Most hotels
were also disinfecting their kitchens regularly and food handlers were
wearing masks. Some hotels were even sterilizing their air-conditioning
I found that no hotels had gone out of business, though
some had been temporarily
closed. The Holiday Inn Lido was building a
new conference center with 500-600 rooms.
The Shangri-La Pudong was
working on a 375-room extension with the biggest ballroom in
A JW Marriott and a Howard Johnson's opened in Shanghai around the time of
stay. Thousands of domestic tourists lined up to visit Chairman
Mao's tomb and office
workers rushed as before through Hong Kong's
Aside from kitchen crews, I found only two people wearing
masks on the whole trip.
They were in Hong Kong. Hong Kong's hotels,
some of which were down during SARS to
one or two guests - if any -
were almost full. Even the infamous Metropole Hotel had a 97%
rate. The government health department had decided that this hotel, one of
sources of Toronto's SARS, was now safe for visitors and I went for
a look. Beijing had given permission for Chinese groups to visit the
former British colony and then in September
expanded the rules to
include individual travelers from a few mainland cities.
didn't need a Rolling Stones concert to help jump-start its
Along with the usual gift fairs in October, it should be doing
okay for a while. Travellers
going there should book hotels well in
advance. Mainland hotels didn't expect to start
recovering until next
year though October and November should be busy with meetings
special events, said Guo Yimei of China Travel Service Hong Kong.
The WHO lifted the
travel ban too late for overseas tourists to make
plans for this autumn's high season. Because
the Chinese government
cancelled the 2003 May 1 holiday, hotels expected domestic tourists to
keep them very busy during the October 1 National Day holidays.
many hotels, a bottle of green disinfectant still sat at reception desks.
Hotels like the
Peninsula and The Salisbury in Hong Kong which
installed sneeze guards on all buffet tables,
still kept them in place.
Restaurants were full again, especially in Hong Kong. In Hong
where the fine for littering or spitting had gone up to HK$1500
(about CDN$300), I noticed a man clearing his throat. Normally, a
full-scale "splat" would follow the "huruck" but no, it
China, the fine is ¥50 (less than CDN$10).
Streets and taxis were
cleaner. Friends said people were more aware of the benefits
hygiene, fresh air and exercise. Some were using serving spoons
instead of their own
chopsticks to access food from common serving
dishes at mealtimes. More people were using plastic instead of cash to
avoid handling germ-laden cash. Some people were thinking twice about
consuming wild life thought by some scientists to be a source of SARS.
Most important was that Hong Kong has matured, said journalist James
Leung. It no longer dotes on beautiful models and making money. It now
respects its doctors, family values, and its culture.
spectacular bargains, but most hotels were giving nothing more than
regular seasonal packages. The popular CITS Head Office travel
agency, however, is trying to entice North Americans back to Beijing. For
US$123 per person, it's giving four nights five- star hotel accommodation
with breakfast, two full days' tours with lunch and dinner, English
speaking guide and round trip airport/hotel transfers and luggage handling
- an incredible bargain. With a price like that, I'm thinking of going
back to Beijing this winter. The offer is good until the end of March
2004. China has changed for the better in more ways than one and I don't
want to miss any of it.
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