China Travel

US$123 for Four Nights in Beijing! by Ruth Lor Malloy
(Author of a guide book on China. Her web-site http://www.china-travel-guide.com/  gives details.)

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
WHO lifted its travel ban. There had been stories about officials in the U.S. and China
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
answered.

I was in China from August 18 to September 3, carrying an N-95 mask in my suitcase.
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
the 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 seats.

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 was
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 systems.

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
the city. A JW Marriott and a Howard Johnson's opened in Shanghai around the time of my
stay. Thousands of domestic tourists lined up to visit Chairman Mao's tomb and office
workers rushed as before through Hong Kong's streets.

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%
occupancy rate. The government health department had decided that this hotel, one of the
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.

Hong Kong didn't need a Rolling Stones concert to help jump-start its economy.
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 and
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.

In 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 Kong
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
didn't. In China, the fine is 50 (less than CDN$10).

Streets and taxis were cleaner. Friends said people were more aware of the benefits of
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.

I expected spectacular bargains, but most hotels were giving nothing more than their
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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