A joke doing the rounds on the Internet says that if Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poet Li Bai were living today, he could have composed only half of the poems about the beautiful scenery across China because of skyrocketing prices of tickets to tourist sites.
Besides, tourism services are really poor in many places and travel costs in sharp contrast to the quality of service delivered.
Just a few days ago, a man in his 70s from Anhui province, surnamed Yao, wrote to Hainan province governor Jiang Dingzhi, complaining about being insulted by his tourist guide on Hainan island for refusing to pay the extra cost to visit the scenic spots he was scheduled to. Later, the tourist guide "dumped" Yao to fend for himself in an unknown place.
Yao is not the only one to be ill-treated by tour operators in Hainan, which aims to be an international tourist hub. Early this year, some tourists complained that they had to pay 4,000 yuan ($626) for just three dishes.
Though Hainan officials have vowed to make more efforts to create a tourist-friendly environment and improve their tourist services, the related authorities, together with those in other parts of the country, should try to find the root cause of the poor tourist service.
To gain greater competitive edge and attract more tourists, many travel agencies have advertised economy package tours at lower-than-normal prices, making it barely profitable for agencies and tour guides both. Therefore, their main means of making money is forcing tourists to visit self-funded scenic spots and shops. Many tour guides are not even paid by their employer agencies and have to rely on commissions from scenic spots and shops where they cajole or coerce tourists to go.
For example, the money Yao paid to the travel agency in Anhui hardly covered his tickets to and from Hainan. That means, the Anhui agency "sold" the tourists to the Hainan agency for a song, so the latter forced tourists like Yao to pay an extra 600 to 900 yuan.
Such tours leave a sour taste in the mouth for a long time. Many tourists who choose package tours find their trips rather tiring, troublesome and less satisfying than they had expected. Everything seems to go wrong. They can only spend one hour or even less at one scenic spot, merely enough to take a brief look at the scenery, click some photographs and then board the bus heading for the next site. The process is repeated day in and day out across the country.
The rising prices of tickets to tourist sites - becoming increasingly unaffordable for ordinary people - is another painful aspect of the tourism industry. The price of a ticket to Zhangjiajie, a famous scenic spot in Hunan province, is 245 yuan, almost three times that of 10 that one has to pay to enter France's Louvre Museum. And to think that France's per capita GDP in 2011 was $44,008 compared with China's $5,413.
Worse, exorbitant entry fees charged by tourist sites do not necessarily mean good quality service. Sometimes, restaurant waitresses, vendors around tourist sites, and even local guides and team escorts turn a cold shoulder to reasonable requests of tourists.
So what needs to be done? China's tourism industry could start with implementing better regulation and management. Tourism authorities can improve the situation by setting up a strict and effective system of supervision and complaint-punishment mechanism, rather than indulging in empty talks to pacify angry tourists and netizens.
Professional training offered to tourism-related service staff is equally important. Also helpful would be the introduction of "mystery customers", a practice with many of the World Top 500 enterprises. A "mystery customer" is a covert assessor who experiences and objectively reports on the quality of service delivered by a shop, a restaurant or a business when customers come into contact with staff members.