Tours de force: new ways to see China

Tours de force: new ways to see China

It’s official – UK travellers have fallen in love with China. And with escorted tours the most popular way to see the country, and long durations and big-ticket bookings the order of the day, there are some great opportunities for canny agents who know their Guilin from their Xi’an.

As Manuel Mascarenhas, managing director at China specialist Wendy Wu, explains: “For China, the average selling price is £3,000 per person, so it is rich pickings for agents – and if you’re offering the right product to the right person they will come back for more.”

As a destination, China has become much more mainstream in recent years and as travellers have become better educated their needs have become more sophisticated.

In addition to the classic week-long ‘first-timer’ tours, taking in mainstays such as Beijing and the Great Wall, today’s travellers increasingly expect experiences ranging from panda spotting in Chengdu to exploring rural Guilin. As a result, operators have responded with a raft of once-in-a-lifetime multi-centre tours covering a staggering amount of ground.

“People are definitely starting to get interested in different parts of the country now,” says Hayes & Jarvis product manager Andrea Loddo. “For example we are seeing more interest in the traditional China from Suzhou and Hangzhou to the heritage of Yunnan.” Pricing is also driving the market. For example, Loddo says fierce competition has driven accommodation rates down by about 50% in many hotels this year.


Operators are also building in increasing flexibility, offering more add-ons such as tour extensions and optional excursions to make group tours less rigid, while adding more private and tailor-made itineraries aimed at repeat visitors.

Tailor-made trips now account for about 10% of bookings at Hayes & Jarvis and to feed demand the company is running a more extensive tailor-made programme for 2011. In addition to the hotels featured in its brochure, agents can book those featured in its China bed bank. Longer stay ‘grand tours’ and tour extensions to places such as Hong Kong are also proving popular, says Loddo.

Wendy Wu offers 21 tours in the country and, despite the difficulties in the travel market this year, Mascarenhas says this year’s trade bookings to China are about 25% up on 2009 levels. For 2011, the key focus is repeat business.

To help meet this aim in the year ahead, the operator is looking to add a new standalone luxury programme for China; add more adventure products, based on the success of its 29-day Epic Adventure, featuring Beijing, Chengdu and Tibet alongside the Himalayas; and add more special interest products such as a culinary tour, having tested the waters this year with its China in Focus photography tour and a China Revisited tour hosted by TV presenter John Craven.

Also on the cards are twin-centre options incorporating Japan, currently offered as a tour extension, to join the 27-day Treasures of Vietnam and China option.

Travel 2, meanwhile, has added an eight-day Highlights of China tour for 2011 aimed at first-timers, including elements such as a trip to see the Terracotta Warriors and the Li River, while its nine-night Hong Kong, Yangtze Cruise and Beijing tour (from £2,369, including flights with Cathay Pacific from London), includes three nights onboard Sanctuary and in each of the two cities.

High-end tours

No stranger to China having featured the country for 45 years, Bales Worldwide has also expanded its programme for 2011, adding destinations such as Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan; Zhangjiajie for its mountains, caves and stunning scenery; and tropical Hainan Island, along with new hotels such as Peninsula Shanghai and the Langham Yangtze Boutique Hotel. Prices lead in at £1,999 for the nine-day Discover China tour, including flights and transfers.

“China is performing very strongly for Bales, possibly due to a post Olympic boom,” says Steve Lidgey, product manager, Orient and Asia. “We are seeing clients more willing to stray off the beaten track. We are easily able to accommodate requests as our local agents in China can cover the whole country and services are of a high level – even in obscure places.”

Cox & Kings offers everything from four-star introductory tours and luxury grand tours to off-the-beaten-track private itineraries and river cruises. Demand is up year on year and to keep the punters happy for 2011 it has added more pre and post-tour extensions and more tailor-made offerings. It’s also launched Shanghai as a city-break alternative to Hong Kong as part of the Relax & Explore programme.

Having expanded its offering in 2010 with some more creative itineraries, China is currently number eight on Kuoni’s hit parade of popular destinations. Even its introductory tours such as the Gorges of the Yangtze tour, which combines a Three Gorges cruise on the Yangtze with staples like Beijing and Shanghai tours, can be amended by bolting on a city stay in Hong Kong or a beach break in Sanya. Longer escorted tours include the 17-night Incredible China, while clients can also tailor-make their own Essential China private tour.

China also gets a big mention in Thomson Tailormade’s latest Far East and Worldwide brochures. Tours range from introductory offerings, such as the nine-day China experience (from £1,699) to the 12-day Images of China (from £1,999), which covers more ground, including Guilin, Xi’an and Hong Kong, to the more comprehensive 20-day Grand Tour of China (from £2,899).

Collette Worldwide Holidays has seen sales to China increase by 40% for 2011 over the same time last year. For 2011 it is sticking with its current three tours: Highlights of China (nine-days, from £1,299); Best of China (12 days, from £2,329); and Ancient China’s Wonders and Yangtze River Cruise (15 days, from £2,649). To drive sales it is offering savings of £100 per person for bookings made before December 31, doubling to £200 per person for Best of China Tour departures after May 1, 2011. Plus, agents get £20 on top of their commission.

Peter Traynor, Collette’s general manager in the UK, says clients are increasingly looking to interact with locals and enjoy more local experiences. Thus its tours include elements such as a dumpling-making class, lunch with a Chinese family and a lesson with a kite master. Like other operators, Collette’s programme also includes optional add-ons such as a full-day Xi’an tour to see the Terracotta Warriors and a two-night extension to Hong Kong.

Active and adventure

China has long been a mainstay of the more intrepid travellers and that continues to be the case. It is one of Gap Adventures’ top three best-selling destinations and to feed demand the operator has five new tours for 2011, including three aimed at the 18-30 ‘Yolo’ (you only live once) market.

Shorter options include Gap’s nine-day Imperial China and Hong Kong, from £1,399. It includes activities such as a Li River boat cruise and cooking class, and taking in sites such as Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin, Yangshuo, and Hong Kong, next departing March 21, 2011. Longer stays include a 28-day Yolo tour, Roam Beijing to Saigon, taking in various highlights of Vietnam and China, costing £1,459, departing February 28, 2011.

China is also one of Explore’s most popular destinations and the operator has 19 tours featuring it. Explaining its appeal, Simon Grove, Explore’s head of product, points to the amazing variety of sights and experiences on offer in a relatively short time frame, the classic juxtaposition of the old and the new, and the pace at which the country is developing.

“China continues to be a solid seller for us,” says Grove. “It is increasingly popular as a long-haul short-break destination as people are realising that the flight isn’t too bad and you can see a fair amount in a week. This is why we have introduced our Week in China itinerary, where customers can leave London after work on Friday and return just over a week later on the following Sunday.”

Also new for 2011 are two budget tours – China on a Shoestring and Beijing to Saigon. As well as being cheaper, these offer a more ‘local’ style experience than a typical escorted tour as they use more local transport and simpler hotels.


Attraction World offers 10 pre-bookable add-ons in China, centred on Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. Options include a Chinese Acrobatics and Shanghai Evening Tour  (adults £53, children £40), a trip to see the Great Wall at Mutianyu, rather than the busy Badaling option (adults £46, children £33) and a Beijing Opera Night Show (adults £27, children £25).


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