More on China
In June, Michelle Baran traveled to China using Travel Bound and with the wholesaler's help was able to put together a seven-day itinerary to Shanghai and Beijing.
'Reflections from China' series
• Reflections from China: Where did all the tourists go?
• Reflections from China: I could have used a travel agent
• Reflections from China: Bustling Shanghai does its own thing
• Reflections from China: Visiting earthquake-wracked Chengdu
In addition, click here to see a slideshow of Michelle Baran's visit to China.
Not only has general interest in visiting China been growing over the past few years, but interest from independent travelers has been rising as well, according to Travel Bound, a New York-based wholesaler that specializes in selling hotel, sightseeing and transfer components.
"I had always considered China more of an escorted tour destination," said Nico Zenner, general manager at Travel Bound. "But the growth of the FIT is phenomenal. You don't need to be handheld to get around. It's a similar story to what Europe was 20 or 30 years ago. Now, people feel very comfortable to be there on an FIT basis."
Travel Bound was founded in 1982 and operates in 119 countries, including China. But according to Zenner, the real breakthrough for Travel Bound in the Chinese market came in 2004 when Gullivers Travel Associates, which owns Travel Bound, became the first foreign company to be licensed to trade directly with Chinese suppliers, without having to go through the government.
"We cut out the middleman, which has a huge price benefit," said Zenner with regards to Travel Bound's increased negotiating power. Travel Bound's China operation has grown to a few hundred employees in various offices around the country.
Currently, Travel Bound has about 2,000 hotels under contract in China, adding on average about 10% more inventory each year.
Using Travel Bound's database of hotels, sightseeing and airport transfers, agents can assemble customized itineraries based on clients' budgets and desired destinations.
Zenner said that one of the biggest areas of expansion is in destinations. In China, Travel Bound services about 30 cities, extending far beyond the dominant tourist cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Xian.
Hotel options in China range from two stars to five, with nightly prices going anywhere from just over $30 per night to $500 per night. Zenner said Travel Bound has such a wide range mainly because it caters to a global customer base with wide-ranging budgetary requirements.
In addition to hotels, Travel Bound offers 1,632 services for FIT travelers to China, including 145 sightseeing tours plus guide services, transfers, shows and other options.
Those options include half- and full-day private and group sightseeing tours to places such as the Great Wall and Chuan Di Xia Village, cooking classes, a foot massage, a traditional meal such as Peking duck and cultural shows such as acrobatics or kung fu.
In May, Travel Bound launched packages and has combined some of the above components into two- and three-night itineraries that include accommodations, meals and sightseeing.
Travel Bound firsthand
In June, I traveled to China using Travel Bound and with the wholesaler's help was able to put together a seven-day itinerary to Shanghai and Beijing (See box at right for details).
I flew from New York to Beijing and then on to Shanghai. Unfortunately, my flight from New York to Beijing was delayed, which caused me to miss my flight from Beijing to Shanghai. And consequently, I took a flight to a different airport, which not only cost me my private airport transfer to my hotel but cost the poor driver several hours waiting for me at the wrong airport. (Normally, Travel Bound provides contact numbers for its various services on each of its detailed service vouchers, but for whatever reason there was no number for the transfer.)
In Shanghai, Travel Bound put me up at the well-appointed JC Mandarin hotel. While the grandiose marble lobby and modern, business-style rooms were undoubtedly impressive, by far the best attribute of the hotel was its central location. From there it was easy to walk almost anywhere in central Shanghai, and taking taxis was a breeze.
Through Travel Bound, I signed up for a half-day Chinese cooking lesson on my first morning in Shanghai. (Looking back, maybe I should have waited for the second or third morning, as I'm not sure extreme jet lag and extremely sharp knives go hand in hand.) But promptly at 9 a.m., the chef-instructor was waiting for me in the lobby, and we whizzed off in a cab (which he paid for) to his kitchen-classroom.
Together we made oyster mushrooms with baby bok choy, sweet and sour pork with pineapple and Sichuan-style chicken with spicy chilies and peanuts. He was incredibly sweet and patient, given how tired and ungraceful I was; not to mention the end result was pretty tasty. He then put me in a cab back to the hotel.
For the remaining two days in Shanghai, I was on my own to explore. Shanghai is very manageable. With a city map (it's critical that it be in English and Chinese) as well as the lifesaving business card from the hotel that had the name and directions to my hotel written on it, I had only a few puzzled moments of disorientation. Otherwise, I easily found the restaurants and attractions that interested me.
On the third night, I flew from Shanghai to Beijing and had not arranged for a private transfer from the airport.
I took a taxi to my hotel, the Holiday Inn Temple of Heaven. A completely decent four-star hotel, the only drawback to the Holiday Inn was the location, which required taking taxis everywhere.
The upside, however, was that for the first two of my four days in Beijing, I didn't have to worry about taxis, as I had a full-day Great Wall and Ming Tombs private tour and a half-day Summer Palace private tour scheduled for the first and second mornings, respectively.
An Olympic detour
Again, both tour guides were promptly downstairs in the lobby at our designated meeting time, so finding them was not at all an issue. The full-day tour was with a young Chinese gentleman, whose English was adequate and who was very friendly and amenable to making any additional stops, like the Olympic stadium site, which he took me to on the way back into the city (his suggestion, which was great). With a driver, he took me first to the Ming Tombs and then to the Great Wall at Badaling, where he let me climb on my own, for however long I desired. They then drove me back to the hotel.
The following morning another tour guide came, a young Chinese woman who spoke very good English. With a driver she took me to the Summer Palace with an optional stop at a silk factory. Both tour guides were very good about not pushing the optional factory stops that can sometimes be a bit of a hustle. The silk factory where they showed visitors the actual silkworm process was interesting and a welcome added stop. I even fell for the "magic" silk blanket that is cool in warm temperatures and warm when it is cold. The tour of the Summer Palace was delightful and informative.
Again, for the rest of my time in Beijing, I was on my own. In both cities, had I wanted to arrange for more tours or entertainment through Travel Bound, those options certainly existed.