History of China Tourism and Travel Agencies

The first travel agent in China appeared in 1923, but the history of China tourism literally started after the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. At first, tourism meant only reception work during foreign affairs, and after 30 years it finally became a real industry since 1978, when the country started to open to common foreign visitors. After a steady growth from 1980s to 1990s, the online tour operators emerged by the end of the 20th century, and saw tremendous progress in recent years.

Travel Activities in Ancient China – before 20th Century

In ancient times, travel was far from vacation and leisure. People traveled to different places for exchanging goods and business. Some most-trekked trading routes were famed, like the Silk Road, Spice Road, and Salt Road. Later, travel became an entertainment, but before 20th century, it was only a lifestyle of royal families and upper classes.

Early 20th Century: Emergence of First Travel Agency

The history of China travel agencies can be dated back to 1923, when a travel department was set up under Shanghai Commercial and Saving Bank by its general manager Chen Guangfu, providing train and ship tickets booking service. In 1927, this department became independent and marked the establishment of country's first travel agency. From then on, small-scale tour organizations appeared but most of them later died out during wars.

1949 – 1978: Exclusive to Foreign Affairs

China's modern tourism originated after the foundation of the PRC in 1949. The country gradually set up foreign affairs offices to handle the official diplomatic visits. China Travel Service (CTS) was established in 1949, China International Travel Service (CITS) in 1954, and the predecessor of China National Tourism Administration in 1964, to manage the reception work during foreign affairs. However, during the three decades, the inbound tourism was totally led by the government and only exclusive to overseas Chinese and foreign officials.

1978 – 1997: Development of Real Tourism Industry

The real independent tourism industry did not exist in China until 1978, when the well-known Reform and Opening-Up Policy was carried out. Since then, the inbound travel was no longer restricted to diplomatic reception. At the same time, Chinese people started to travel abroad mainly for visiting relatives. To deal with the soaring demand of the market, a lot of tour operators appeared, but during 1980s and 1990s, the inbound tourism was still run by several state-owned travel enterprises and their branches.

The implementation of the Management Rules for Travel Agency in 1996 marked the further open of China's tourism market. Statistics of 1997 showed that there were 4,986 travel agencies throughout the country and the whole year's tourist volume totaled 701 million. However, it should be noted that inbound travel to China was still in a B2B mode and there was no channel at that time for foreign visitors to directly choose a local tour operator. That decided the long procedures and high cost of a China tour.

1997 – 2010: Start of Online Tour Operators

In 1997, the online tour service has come true in China thanks to the rapid development of the internet. Several leading travel agencies have created their own websites, among which the earliest include WarriorTours.com set up in 1997 and TravelChinaGuide.com in 1998. Online channels realized the contacts between travelers and local China tour operators, eliminating the middlemen and drastically lowering the travel cost, thus a booster for foreigners' interest in traveling China.

Outbound travels also boomed in this period, and China became the largest tourist source country in Asia in just one decade. Tourism had gradually become a pillar industry of China's economy. Till 2010, the number of travel agencies rocketed to 22,784, the annual tourism revenue totaled 1,570 billion, and the online tourism contributed about 5.1%.

2010 – Present: Online Service Rises & Mobile Booking Prevails

This is a period welcoming the fast development of online travel service. The world's largest domestic and outbound travel markets are formed in China, while the inbound tourism also sees steady growth. By the end of 2017, the total of travel agencies was 27,939, the direct employees in tourism industry exceeded 30 million, and the annual tourism revenue totaled 5,700 billion. Online travel market penetration rate has reached more than 15%, and mobile represented more than half of all online travel bookings.

Up-to-date technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and big data will greatly influence the service mode of tour agencies and future travel experience in China.


How to Identify the History of a China Tour Operator

Facing quite a lot of websites of China tour operators, one should know some key points to figure out the reliable ones and avoid the traps of some unfaithful agencies that cheat on their histories. Hereunder are three expert-tested ways:

1. Read 'About Us' of a Website and Remember No Real Inbound Travel Agency before 1978

The easiest way is to read the self-introduction on a website, in which all its basic info should be included. Referring to the above development history of China tourism, you should beware of an agency claiming a history before 1978. It is absolutely cheating! Except foreign affairs, there were no inbound travel before 1978 when the country was just to open to common foreigners, let alone some boast even before 1949.

2. Check the Business License

Doubting the history provided on a website, you can ask the tour operator to show the Business License and Travel Business Permit, in which the full name of the company, its registration number, address, foundation date, validation period, and business scope are clearly listed in Chinese.

3. Check through Official Website of Administration for Market Regulation

If you can read Chinese or have a friend knowing Chinese, you can check the authenticity of an agency on the website of the State Administration for Market Regulation of China:

 Reference: List of China Tour Operators (Members of China Association of Travel Services)

- Last updated on Apr. 26, 2021 -
Questions & Answers on History of China Tourism and Travel Agencies
Asked by Roger Hughes from ENGLAND | Jan. 22, 2016 18:07Reply
Would like to visit China and see many of the historical sites
Great wall, Terracotta army, Beijing the forbidden city, etc; going in September for 11 to 14 days.
We are celebrating 25years of marriage and would like to visit china. We like the off beat tour as well as the touristy items.

Where is the best place to book and link up with tour operators that can offer both the main and alternative tourist activities.
Answers (1)
Answered by Tracy from IRELAND | Jan. 22, 2016 21:05

Roger, I think you might contact this website for consultation. I used to make a tour to mainland China with their assistance. Everything was perfect. I notice that they provide Tailmade and DIY services. You might send an email to them and ask if they are able to satisfy your requirements. The email address is tourstravelchinaguide.com.

Wish you had a nice trip!
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