Immortalised in poetry and art for its bucolic and pastoral beauty, Hangzhou is riding a boom in tourism, as visitors flock to the city's scenic spots. Last year, the city played host to more than 70 million visitors, 3 million of whom were international, an increase of more than 10 per cent over 2010, according to Minnie Xu, general manager of Hangzhou's JW Marriott and Courtyard by Marriott.
The boom may yet be in its early stages, as the city 'hopes to grow annual guests to 100 million in the next few years,' says Rob Spiekerman, general manager of the InterContinental Hangzhou and regional general manager for the hotel chain.
With at least 2,000 hotels in Hangzhou, competition has never been fiercer, according to Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake general manager Rudolf van Dijk. To stand out, hotels are emphasising special amenities or offerings. The Four Seasons boasts a luxurious garden, for example, while the Landison Longjing Resort is steeped in the local tea culture.
The Marriott chain offers two different hotels to appeal to the whole market. The InterContinental emphasises its building, which is in the shape of the sun and counterpoised by the moon-shaped opera house next door.
Serviced apartment residences are also in the mix. Enterprises, such as the Oakwood Residence Hangzhou, promise 'the services of a five-star hotel [restaurants, fitness centre and maid service], but with larger rooms starting at 40 square metres and up', according to Oakwood general manager Brian Connelly.
Cities such as Beijing, Sanya and Shanghai compete with Hangzhou for the convention and meeting business, Xu says, while the beauties of nature drive the leisure market. 'Suzhou has its gardens and Chengdu is popular for its pandas, while we have the West Lake,' Spiekerman says.
'Even as the market develops, so too are customers becoming more discerning. International guests and domestic tourists who have travelled internationally have experienced higher standards and bring a new expectation of service,' Connelly says.
To continue its tourism growth, Hangzhou is committing greater resources to its cultural and scenic strengths. The city is 'really investing in new and expanded local activities, like the West Lake Expo and a fireworks festival', according to Xu.
Competition between hotels is also intense, and success will depend on 'developing differentiated brands', says Louise Zhao, general manager of the Landison Longjing Resort.
For every hotel, a top concern is maintaining and growing qualified staff. Employees are often tempted by the prospect of upward mobility in other hotels or cities.
Overall, hotels remain positive about the potential for growth in the international arena, given Hangzhou's relative obscurity in the international market. 'It's a city of 8.7 million that few people have heard of outside China,' Spiekerman says.