'Beautiful China' tourism pitch gets lost in the smog
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 inept at a time when smog has drawn attention to the environmental and health costs of China's industrialisation.
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 per cent beautiful," said Dr Alastair Morrison, a Beijing-based expert in tourism destination marketing and development.
China is the world's third most-visited country after France and the US. In 2011, travel and tourism generated US$644 billion, or more than 9 per cent of Chinese gross domestic product, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, mostly propelled by the domestic market. Growth in foreign tourists has lagged world averages.
According to the World Tourism Organisation, whose data is based on national sources, the average growth rate in overnight visitors worldwide was 2.8 per cent from 2008 to 2012. The average growth rate in China was 2.1 per cent.
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 per cent 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," Morrison said. "You have to question what's going on."
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, a strategy that has been criticised by experts as failing to target potential individual travellers.