Since China reopened to foreign tourism in the early 1980s, all foreign tour operators have been required to use official state-registered travel companies as ground handlers. All arrangements in China were usually put together by one of three companies: China International Travel Service (CITS), China Travel Service (CTS), or China Youth Travel Service (CYTS). Controls are now loosening, foreign tour companies are now allowed some limited activities in China, and the range of possible Chinese partners has increased, but in effect, CITS and the like are the only companies with nationwide networks of offices, and most foreign tour companies still turn to them. They work out the schedule at the highest possible prices and send the costs to the foreign package company, which then adds its own administration charges and hands the resulting quote to you.
You could get the same price yourself by dealing with CITS (which has many offices overseas) directly. But you can get far better prices by organizing things yourself as you go along so, other than convenience, there's little benefit and a great deal of unnecessary cost to buying a package. Just about any tour operator will offer to tailor an itinerary to your needs, which means it will usually simply pass on the request to one of the state monoliths, and pass the result back to you. The benefit of dealing with a Chinese travel company directly is that you cut out the middleman, but if things go wrong, you will be unlikely to obtain any compensation whatsoever. If you book through a home tour operator, you can expect to obtain refunds and compensation if this becomes appropriate. In general, however, when organized through CITS, rail or air tickets for your next leg are reliably delivered to each hotel as you go. Be cautious when booking directly over the Web with a China-based travel service or "private" tour guide. Check that they are licensed to do business with foreigners, and confirm that there are no hidden costs. If you're set on a tour, and money is no object, then start with the list of tour companies below in the following sections, nearly all of which will arrange individual itineraries; or contact the CNTO to find properly registered Chinese agencies who may help you. The Hong Kong Tourism Board and the Macau Government Tourism Office, in whose territories the tourism industry is well regulated, can point you toward reputable operators and reliable licensed private guide.
Escorted General-Interest Tours
Escorted tours are structured group tours with a group leader. The price often includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation.
Escorted tours do not usually represent savings, but they do take the hassle out of travel arrangements and allow you to see as much as possible in the time you have. Foreign tour companies are required to work with licensed Chinese ground handlers, although some do book as much as they can directly. But even as markets become freer, most deals will continue to be made with the official state operators, if only for convenience. Please read the brochures with as much skepticism as you would read a Realtor's (one man's "scenic splendor" is another's "heavily polluted"), and read the following notes carefully.
Most tour companies peddle the same list of mainstream "must-sees" -- not all of which can hope to live up to the towering hype -- featuring Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Guilin, and the Yangzi River, with some alternative trips to Tibet, Yunnan Province, or the Silk Routes.
When choosing a tour company for China, you must, of course, consider cost, what's included, the itinerary, the likely age and interests of other tour group members, the physical ability required, and the payment and cancellation policies, as you would for any other destination. But you should also investigate the following:
Shopping Stops -- These are the bane of any tour in China, designed to line the pockets of tour guides, drivers, and sometimes the ground handling company itself. A stop at the Great Wall may be limited to only an hour so as to allow an hour at a cloisonne factory. In some cases the local government owns the shop in question and makes a regulation requiring all tours to stop there. The better foreign tour operators design their own itineraries and have instituted strict contractual controls to keep these stops to a minimum, but they are often unable to do away with them altogether, and tour guides will introduce extra stops whenever they think they can get away with it. Other companies, particularly those that do not specialize in China, just take the package from the Chinese ground handler, put it together with flights, and pass it on uncritically. At shopping stops, you should never ask or accept your tour guide's advice on what is the "right price." You are shopping at the wrong place to start with, where prices will often be 10 times higher than they should be. Typically your guide, driver, and maybe even the tour leader, will split a 30% commission on sales. The "discount" card you are given marks you for yet higher initial prices and tells the seller to which guide commission is owed. So ask your tour company how many of these stops are included, and simply sit out those you cannot avoid.
Guides -- The ability, honesty and attitude of Chinese guides varies enormously, and while some can be highly informative and responsive to your needs, others follow a set program, repeating the same old spiel, no matter what the question, while hurrying you from shop to shop. Better companies vet their guides and will arrange a national guide who will escort you throughout the entire trip; this is great if you get a decent guide, but can be frustrating if not. Cheaper companies may not use guides at all, or may use different local guides as you reach new destinations. While many of the guides may not be that great, the variety, and possibility of landing the odd good guide, at least adds interest. Many guides will be reticent to discuss politics and you should be careful how you phrase potentially sensitive questions. It is also worth discussing with your operator where your guide will be from; in autonomous regions such as Tibet or Xinjiang it is far better to be escorted by a Tibetan or Uighur respectively, and this also helps to support the local community rather than just lining the pockets of national guides.
Ask your tour company if it will be sending along a guide or tour manager from your home country to accompany trip members and to supplement local guides. This is worth paying more for, as it ensures a smoother trip all-around, and it helps you get more authoritative information. Otherwise, you're better off bringing background reading from home. Conversely, guides in Hong Kong and Macau are often extremely knowledgeable and both objective and accurate with their histories.
Groups with Abercrombie & Kent (group tours and custom private tours, tel. 800/554-7061 in the U.S.; custom private tours tel. 0845/618-2200 in the U.K.; www.abercrombiekent.com) are typically composed of 12 to 18 participants (with a maximum of 24 persons), and tour leaders include Mandarin-speaking Westerners and Chinese, and local specialist guides. Tours have a historical and cultural focus and are upmarket, using China's very best hotels and direct contact with local artists, archaeologists, and colorful personalities.
The maximum group size with Adventure Center (tel. 800/228-8747 in the U.S.; www.adventurecenter.com) is 18 (typically 12) and both foreign and local tour leaders are used. The company offers a range of trip styles from more affordable grass-roots-style trips designed for younger participants to more inclusive trips using upgraded accommodations for those wanting to combine adventure and comfort. Itineraries include walks on stretches of the Great Wall, the Eastern Qing Tombs, and Chengde. Representatives can also be contacted in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. See the website for details.
Gecko's Adventures tours are aimed at a younger crowd (typically 20-40-year-olds) and tour leaders are locals with Gecko's training. Itineraries stick mainly but not entirely to the highlights, but these are more down-to-earth budget tours using smaller guesthouses, local restaurants, and public transport. Branches are located across Australia: tel. 03/9662-2700; fax 03/9662-2422; and now in the U.K. (tel. 0844/736-0175; geckosadventures.co.uk) and the U.S. (tel. 800/227-8747). For representatives worldwide, see www.geckosadventures.com.
General Tours World Traveler's (tel. 800/221-2216 in the U.S.; www.generaltours.com) small-group escorted tours are led by a handpicked team of English-speaking guides. Itineraries are experiential and culture-focused, and as such, shopping stops are kept to a minimum. There's a wide choice, including six different Yangzi cruises and tours covering the highlights of China plus Tibet or Japan.
With Laurus Travel (tel. 877/507-1177 in the U.S. and Canada, or 604/438-7718 in Canada; www.laurustravel.com) group sizes range from 10 to 20 people and a tour leader accompanies the tour from Canadian departure or from arrival in China. Laurus is a China-only specialist, but itineraries are mainstream.
Pacific Delight Tours (tel. 800/221-7179 in the U.S.; www.pacificdelighttours.com) are special tours for families with children and tours can be modified or extended to meet client needs. Top-range tours are accompanied by a bilingual tour manager from the West Coast onward, while others are locally hosted.
Peregrine Adventures (tel. 800/227-8747 in the U.S., or 03/8601-4444 in Australia; fax 03/8601-4422; www.peregrineadventures.com) designs its own programs and tour leaders are locals trained by the company. Trips include visits to private homes and smaller restaurants frequented by locals, and can include walks and bike rides.
Tour groups with R. Crusoe & Son (tel. 888/585-8555 in the U.S.; www.rcrusoe.com) are kept small and are accompanied by a Hong Kong Chinese and are joined by local guides at each stop. Tours include extras such as a visit to an area of the Forbidden City that is usually closed to the public, private visit to the Tang dynasty murals, and a view of Xi'an's Terra-Cotta Warriors at eye level, rather than just from the viewing gallery.
Groups range in size from 10 to 24 people with Ritz Tours (tel. 888/345-7489 in the U.S.; www.ritztours.com); parents often bring children. Ritz's own Shanghai office organizes the selection of local ground handlers -- a mixture of large and small companies, with a preference for those providing good English-speaking guides.
SITA World Tours (tel. 800/421-5643 in the U.S. and Canada; www.sitatours.com) has over 75 years of experience, SITA offers luxury, deluxe, and first class tours throughout China and the Orient, escorted by certified guides that are sensitive to the needs of the discerning traveler. SITA also guarantees its departures so there is never a concern in a tour canceling.
Swain Tours (tel. 610/896-9595 in the U.S.; fax 610/896-9592; www.swaintours.com) specializes in creating fully customized travel experiences to various destinations, including China. They're great for those seeking an off-the-beaten-path adventure.
Tauck World Discovery (tel.: 800/788-7885 in the U.S.; www.tauck.com) offers a 16-day itinerary in China, which features a 3-night Yangzi River cruise, upscale accommodations, and virtually all expenses included (five on-tour flights, 37 meals, admission to all sites and attractions, and so on).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.