What will be the top destination for high-end travel in China this year? The Great Wall? The Terracotta Warriors? Shanghai’s historic Bund?
The right answer might well be the Grand Canal (京杭大运河). Traveling the course of the manmade river will become a new highlight in 2018, said Yangjie Wang, director of the China National Tourist Office (CNTO) in New York, during The New York Times Travel Show last weekend.
Though unknown to many people outside of China, the 1,115-mile-long ancient waterway is an impressive feat of engineering and a UNESCO World Heritage site. “The total length of the journey is equivalent to that of cruising from Orlando to New York,” Wang added.
The Grand Canal was built in the 15th century and was admired by the pioneering Italian missionary, Matteo Ricci. Historically, the Grand Canal flowed all the way from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. The touted tourist route goes in the reverse direction, from Hangzhou to Huai’an, Jining, Tianjin, Beijing and then Cangzhou.
It would make for an impressive cruise up the East of the country, except that the Grand Canal had been closed since the 19th century, with only the section between Hangzhou and Jining still open today.
It’s a fairly pedestrian waterway, useful for barges, but without the power and drama of the Yangtze, or the lyrical landscape of Yangshuo.
Established Grand Canal-themed activities are hardly must-sees. There’s the Grand Canal Motorcycle Challenge, which sees participants ride bikes along a similar route from Beijing to Hangzhou, while the Grand Canal Poetry Festival in Hangzhou features poems related to the waterway.
Taken as a string of separate destinations, Hangzhou’s West Lake and Beijing, with its Forbidden City and proximity to the Great Wall, are already on international tourists’ radars. The Confucian Temple in Qufu might hold some appeal, but the other destinations are a tougher sell.
China has countless hastily rebuilt ‘ancient streets’ and ‘water towns’ that are often overcrowded, polluted, and poorly differentiated. And, outside of the major destinations, luxury travelers may struggle to find accommodation and dining options that meet their standards.
Transportation is also a challenge for the proposed route. Because the Grand Canal is neither a destination (like Niagara Falls) nor a single continuous journey (like the Orient Express), travelers would have to constantly switch from boats to cars to high-speed trains to complete the trip overland.
Wang said the Chinese government has been creating scenic spots and investing more and more money in infrastructure.
Yet there is much yet to be done to draw luxury travelers to places like Cangzhou and Jining. Censorship continues to stifle culture, blocked websites frustrate travelers visiting from overseas, and, in much of China, the environment will need decades to recover. In areas with world-class natural beauty, such as Xinjiang Province, draconian security measures will scare off many tourists.
These same factors, of course, also push affluent Chinese tourists to travel (and ultimately move) abroad.