Negative perceptions arising from poor travel services and traffic congestion, serious air pollution in major cities, food safety scandals and a government crackdown on extravagance by officials have buffeted China's tourism industry. This is reflected in static visitor numbers and falling hotel and restaurant revenue. But investors, more than half of them from the private sector, have shrugged it all off with record direct investment in tourism-related projects last year of more than 514 billion yuan (HK$617 billion).
Clearly they are confident of a profitable turnaround. But it could depend on how serious the central government is about enforcing new air-quality goals, since research indicates pollution has definitely damaged the reputations of tourist cities in the eyes of health-conscious Western travellers. In an effort to come to grips with worsening smog that sends a murky image abroad, Beijing has now signed up most provinces to specific air-pollution pledges for the next four years. Last September the central government set targets to cut levels of PM2.5 - tiny airborne pollutants most harmful to health - for major city clusters around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Now another 11 municipalities and provinces, mostly industrial and well-off, are required to cut levels of these particulates by 10 to 25 per cent by 2017, while others will have to cut levels of the larger PM10 by five to 15 per cent.
According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the State Council will evaluate each province's progress annually and where they have failed the ministry will summon officials "for a talk". This suggests Beijing is pushing local officials to take more responsibility for addressing worsening air pollution attributable partly to their drive for economic growth at all costs. Similar approaches have failed in the past, which has made the ministry look like a paper tiger. With the National Meteorological Centre reporting more smoggy days last year than in any year since 1961, it is time Beijing unleashed it to show its fangs.