Foreign visitors say city welcoming but challenges remain
By Hu Min
Celine Chanut, a French tourist guide who has been living in Shanghai for three years, recalls an amusing story highlighting the plight of visitors who don't speak Chinese.
A local tour guide took a group of visitors to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, she said, telling them if anyone got lost, they would all meet up next at the Seagull Restaurant. Three of the group did get lost, but when the guide went to the restaurant, they were nowhere to be seen.
The trio didn't know how to say Seagull Restaurant in Chinese, and when they flapped their arms to illustrate what they meant, a taxi driver took them to the Pudong International Airport.
"Language is still an obstacle," said Chanut. "I think Shanghai should develop a more friendly and less commercial approach to tourism."
The city is certainly trying to become more visitor friendly.
Tourists who once sought safety in group tours are now more willing to strike out on their own. That willingness has been enhanced, to some degree, by the 45 information centers the city has installed at airports, railway stations, tourist attractions and shopping plazas. The centers, serving some 1,500 foreign tourists a day, offer free maps and information on scenic spots, shopping, restaurants and even cycling routes, according to the Shanghai Tourism Bureau.
At one center, along the popular shopping walkway on Nanjing Road E., Zheng Xiaoying carefully arranges maps on shelves in the 8-square-meter space.
When a tourist seeks help, she flashes a warm smile.
"Fridays and weekends are my busiest times," Zheng explained. "Sometimes there can be over 100 visitors here."
Like all the centers, hers provides help in English and tourists maps in nine languages, including French, Korean and Japanese.
As recently as five years ago, information centers were few and far between in Shanghai. Visitors and expats hosting visiting friends and family from abroad speak enthusiastically about improved service.
American lawyer Lisa Payne said she didn't dare venture out alone on her first visit eight years ago. She never went anywhere without a Chinese friend to guide her. On recent visits, she said she feels confident to explore on her own, thanks partly to knowing the information centers are there.
The centers are only part of improvements for visitors.
"The Metro has expanded a lot, making it extremely convenient to explore the city, and the Shanghai Call Center - 962288 - is a huge help," said Indian Raj Khurana, who has lived in Shanghai for about five years.
That's not to say it's smooth sailing in all cases.
Not far from Zheng's center on Nanjing Road E., Briton Ben King, a solo traveler on his first trip to the city, uses a Kindle to help him navigate.
"Information centers? I didn't know that they existed," he said. "China is a slightly difficult place if you don't speak any Chinese. The underground (Metro) is OK, but it is not always easy to take a taxi if you don't have the destination written down."
Malaysian Reena Roy, who has lived in Shanghai for two years, said she has never seen an information center in the city.
Indeed, even Zheng's center at such a top tourist area as Nanjing Road E. is hard to find. A Shanghai Daily reporter had to ask two security guards for directions before spotting its small signboard in blue, which was hard to spot among similar-looking places selling sports lottery tickets, soft drinks and tickets to Madame Tussauds.
Within five minutes' walk, there is another information center - this one much bigger but even harder to find. The electronic touch screen there didn't work well.
The tourism bureau, in a written reply to Shanghai Daily, said it is aware of problems that need to be addressed.
"Some information centers have long queues of visitors during tourism boom times and suffer a shortage of staff, while others have few visitors due to location and lack of promotion," it said. "We are taking active measures to improve the system."
Frenchwoman Chanut said it would be helpful to tourists if the city took a less commercial approach to visitors. She suggested there is more to the city than promoting shopping. Cultural exchange activities should be organized, museums should be open free to visitors in areas of the city filled with history and culture, and more needs to be done to advance appreciation of the arts, she said.
Roy agreed. "Shanghai has many hidden secrets in different pockets that only the locals know," she said.
"It's always better to have the guidance of a local Chinese in seeing the city."
Khurana said he would like to see information centers provide English-speaking personal guides at reasonable prices. "Psychologically, a foreign tourist often worries about venturing out, but if one could hire an official guide at a tourist counter at a fixed rate to avoid the bargaining, it would be a lot better," he said.
The city has a hotline - 962020 - for tourist inquiries and complaints, but it is not well publicized or much utilized.
As the city recaps its achievements in the past five years and maps out the blueprint for the next period, Shanghai Daily is running a series of reports exploring how expat life has evolved accordingly.
The series, "Expat and the City," focus on many aspects of expat life, ranging from the city's English language environment, visa applications and employment to medical services, children's education and social adaptation.