Beijing— Forget all the headlines about eye-watering pollution in Beijing and Shanghai — the Middle Kingdom’s latest tourism slogan invites visitors to “Beautiful China.”
Adorning buses and trains in cities such as London, the marketing effort has been derided as particularly inept at a time when record-busting smog has drawn attention to the environmental and health costs of China’s unfettered industrialization.
Like this year’s typically clunky theme for visitors, “China Ocean Tourism Year,” the slogan highlights the tin ear of an industry that has ridden the coattails of China’s rapid economic growth and increased global prominence but failed to keep up with international travel trends.
“Beauty can be looked at in many different ways, but when you have all the stories about the pollution, and the air pollution in particular, people are not going to buy the fact that China is 100 percent beautiful,” said Alastair Morrison, a Beijing-based expert in tourism destination marketing and development.
China’s tourism industry has grown at a fast pace since the country began free-market-style economic reforms three decades ago. In 2011, travel and tourism generated $644 billion, or more than 9 percent of China’s GDP, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, mostly propelled by its huge domestic market of 1.1 billion people.
China is also the world’s third most-visited country after France and the U.S. Despite that status, the numbers are less significant economically than domestic tourism.
According to the World Tourism Organization, the average growth rate in overnight visitors worldwide was 2.8 percent from 2008 to 2012. The average growth rate in China was 2.1 percent.
And in the first nine months of this year, a period during which China’s image as a destination has been tainted by worsening air pollution and unprecedented coverage of it, foreign overnight visitors dropped 7 percent to 15 million people.
“For a destination like China, which is a large country that many foreigners have not been to, and with the interest in China, you would expect above average growth rates,” said Morrison.
Some point to unsophisticated marketing as an explanation.
Whereas tourism offices all over the world use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Chinese tourism authorities stick with what they know: trade shows and magazine advertising.