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High entrance fees to top-tier scenic areas gouging Chinese
By Doug Young

THE weeklong Golden Week may be in the past, but many are still feeling stung by the high ticket prices they had to pay for popular tourist attractions during the holiday. This particular subject comes up during all major national holidays due to increasingly high entrance fees at some of China’s most popular tourist spots, generating heated discussion on the appropriateness of such prices.

I haven’t lived in the US for a decade now, but when I was there prices for most tourist attractions were mostly in the US$10-20 range, including most museums and other popular urban sites.

Many Chinese attractions now charge similar rates, even though the average Chinese makes far less than the average American. The huge burden on Chinese tourists becomes even more pronounced when visiting scenic areas, where fees in China are often even higher than those in the US.

While unfettered commercialism is partly to blame for the high fees, average Chinese also need to accept some of the blame themselves. Many of those complainers often avoid paying taxes whenever they can, depriving the government of funds that in the West would be used to help offset expensive costs required to run many publicly owned tourist spots.

Tourism in China has changed dramatically over the last 25 years, a direct result of the nation’s economic boom that has given people extra money to spend on travel. Back in the 1980s when such travel was quite rare, a common complaint among foreigners was the huge double standard in ticket prices between Chinese and outsiders.

That double standard usually saw Chinese charged modest fees of 1 yuan (16.67 US cents) or less for many major attractions, while foreigners had to pay prices that were often much higher, sometimes up to 100 yuan. Perhaps such differentiation was justified in an era when many Chinese earned less than 100 yuan a month, even though it still left many foreigners feeling like we were being cheated.

Thankfully, the days of dual-pricing are in the past, and both foreigners and Chinese pay the same high prices for many popular tourist spots. Before I go on, I should start by commending Shanghai for keeping its most famous site, the Bund, completely free of charge for all to enjoy.

That may sound like an obvious strategy for such an open area, but many smaller Chinese cities have strategically fenced off such central areas and make people buy expensive tickets just to enter and walk around.

I recently traveled to the quaint water town of Wuzhen, where the two main scenic areas of the city now cost a combined 220 yuan just to enter and stroll for a few hours.

While the Bund is free, Shanghai’s other big attraction, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, is quite another matter, costing up to 220 yuan for a trip to the top of the city’s signature structure.

While ticket prices in the 100-200 yuan range have become quite common, what’s gotten people even more upset lately are even higher prices for some larger scenic areas.

A report over the holiday revealed that the highest entrance fee for such areas was a place in the Sichuan city of Mianyang, where visitors had to pay a whopping 465 yuan — around US$75 to get in.

Tourists being blackmailed

Those parks can charge such high prices because tourists often pay far bigger sums for plane tickets, hotels and other expenses just to go on holiday. Thus they’re unlikely to skip a major attraction just because of a high ticket price. Park operators realize that visitors may be grumpy but are unlikely to cancel a visit to a famous attraction that was a central part of their trip plans.

But as I’ve said already, I do think that average Chinese also need to take some of the blame because of their reluctance to pay taxes.

The point is best illustrated in the US in our government-funded National Park System, which keeps ticket prices for even the most famous parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite at US$25 or less per family.

Such prices are so reasonable because most US citizens help to pay for the parks through their taxes, which the government returns to people by funding parks and other infrastructure.

By comparison, many of my Chinese friends say they pay little or no taxes, and even the ones who pay often say they think their money won’t be used productively.

This kind of mentality really needs to change for local governments to become more effective, and one place they could try to raise their credibility is by taking stronger steps to rein in ticket prices.

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