If you fancy a walk on China’s Great Wall it will set you back the equivalent of around US$6. While this may not break your bank, touring other world-famous attractions – for instance the Taj Mahal or the pyramids of Giza – will cost you just a fraction of that price.
But soon visitors to this and many other Chinese attractions could be paying far less following a proposal by the country’s Premier Li Keqiang.
Visitors to some of the country’s lesser-known sites have long complained of steep entry costs, which can be as high as US$95.
“I still remember the shock I had when I visited the imperial mountain resort in Chengde [about 250km northwest of Beijing] with my family in 2013,” Wang Lin, a Beijing office worker, said.
“The ticket price was more than double what it costs to get into the Summer Palace in Beijing, even though it’s not as impressive and there’s much less to see.”
Wang is not the only one who is unhappy about ticket prices at tourist sites. As local governments count their tourism revenues from the Lunar New Year break last month, many who travelled are complaining about the crowds and the cost – particularly entrance fees to the top attractions, which in other countries are cheaper, or free.
A classic tour of the three big sights in popular scenic spot Zhangjiajie – an otherworldly, Unesco-listed park in central Hunan province best known for the world’s longest glass bridge – costs more than 600 yuan (US$95) in entry fees.
Yet in Zhangjiajie, the average per capita disposable income was about 15,000 yuan last year. That means a trip to see the famous scenery, which is said to have inspired the floating mountains in James Cameron’s Avatar, would cost about half the average monthly disposable wage for an average local resident.
But now, amid mounting criticism that most tourist sites are too expensive compared with other countries, this long-standing problem is being addressed. Li vowed in his work report to the legislature last week to lower the ticket prices at major government-run sites.
“I think the premier’s remarks, and this move, is long overdue,” Wang said. “Many of these parks should have been free in the first place – like Mount Fuji in Japan. Of course, there are a few places in China that are free, like West Lake in Hangzhou.”
Unlike many other countries, where such sites are considered public resources and are free or cost very little to visit, some local governments in China had until now been relying on tourist attractions to make money, according to researchers.
China’s tourist attractions – from famous parks and rice terraces to temples, walled cities and historic sites – are graded according to their importance and there were 249 of them at the top level in September. Ticket prices have been rising steadily since the first batch of top-grade sites were designated in 2007.
Of these top-tier sites, more than half charge over 100 yuan (just over US$15) for entry – and many of those cost over 200 yuan to visit, said Zhan Dongmei, from official research institute the China Tourism Academy.
“[Ticket prices at] some sites are higher than the average cost at similar attractions in other countries, and well beyond the budget of average families,” she said.
By way of contrast, sites such as the Louvre in Paris or Moscow’s Kremlin cost US$11 and US$9 respectively to visit.
Tourism entry fees are cheaper in the eastern and more affluent regions, while the central and western areas are usually more expensive, Zhan added.
In Beijing, famous attractions like the Forbidden City and the Badaling section of the Great Wall charge just a few dozen yuan for entry, but in less developed areas like northwestern Shaanxi, a ticket to see the world-famous Terracotta Army in Xian costs 150 yuan.
A number of state-owned parks meanwhile charge more than 200 yuan, mostly in less developed regions.
Reducing the entrance fees at those sites would be appropriate, Zhan said, given that they are meant to be enjoyed by the public, and it would also push other tourist spots to follow suit.
But He Jianmin, a professor in tourism management at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, defended the high ticket prices, saying they reflected the cost of maintenance and building facilities, as well as a lack of subsidies from the central government.
“Most of the parks are located in remote areas so they have to build roads, toilets and everything else needed to support these sites, which are often in mountainous areas. It’s like building a small town, so the cost is very high,” he said.
One example is the Yellow Mountains, or Huangshan, which is high on the sightseeing list of many domestic tourists and charges 230 yuan for entry.
Without any major industry or a hi-tech zone to fall back on, the city of Huangshan relies on visitors – its total revenue from tourism last year was 50.6 billion yuan, while its gross domestic product was 64.5 billion yuan.
The central government does provide funding to local governments for tourist projects, but only a small amount is set aside for each province.
The Ministry of Finance approved a total of 1.18 billion yuan for such projects across the country last year, and southeastern Anhui province – where the Yellow Mountains are located – received 37.4 million yuan of that, according to the ministry’s website.
In his work report, Li also urged local governments to develop a more holistic approach to tourism by luring more visitors through general improvements to the environment and public services rather than focusing on developing scenic spots, hotels and restaurants.
Zhan said reduced ticket prices would also benefit the local economy because tourists would have more money to spend.
“The trend now is for lower ticket prices, and tourists can use the money they save on entry fees to pay for better hotels, local entertainment, food and so on,” Zhan said. “They’ll have better experiences and the people who make their living at these tourist attractions will make better profits.”