Every weekend above Jianshan, a newly developed tourist destination near Hangzhou Bay in Zhejiang province, about a dozen tourists take Cheng Weishi’s Robinson R44 helicopter to experience their first “low-altitude tour”. For some living near this affluent area on the mainland’s east coast, helicopter tours costing about 680 yuan (HK$830) for 10 minutes have become fashionable entertainment. In contrast to the bleak business outlook for private jet charters due to Beijing’s austerity measures, the general aviation sector is confident about the low-altitude tourism market. READ MORE: Destination China: Tourism properties mushroom nationwide as developers keen to cash in domestic travel boom Within the past two years, scenic air tour services have flourished from megacities such as Beijing to fourth-tier cities such as Haining, where Jianshan is situated. Cheng, a pilot and the co-founder of Zhejiang BLS General Aviation, was among the first to see the market’s potential. He figured demand for helicopter tours would grow alongside the expansion of the middle class. “It’s still a new sightseeing experience for mainlanders, and we believe there’s much space for growth in the near future,” said Cheng. According to the China Tourism Academy, a research institute under the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA), there were only three officially approved low-altitude travel routes on the mainland in 2013, but this had surged to 42 by March this year. The latest routes approved include Shandong province’s Sanxianshan scenic area and Jiangxi province’s Jinggang Mountain. Jiang Xufeng, executive director of Jiangsu Shenghao General Aviation, is applying for a licence to engage in the business. “In recent years more and more people are travelling on weekends. This trend is providing good opportunities for air tours in major tourist attractions,” he said. READ MORE: Taxi drivers, toilets, pollution... Top six complaints about Beijing from foreign tourists He Anhua, at the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China, a college for adult higher education, said the sector used to be strictly controlled, but had been stimulated by the government in a tourism policy directive last year. However, prices for such tours were still high for most mainland tourists, which limited the profit margins of running them. Most tours lasted 10 to 20 minutes and cost between 600 to 1,200 yuan, He said. “Because of the limited number of customers, low-altitude tours on the mainland are more an advertisement for most companies at present,” he said. “Only a few have managed to make profits from them.” Not all rich people like flying, and some of those who do may not have the time. Also, it’s not something that people would do on a regular basis Cheng Weishi, co-founder of Zhejiang BLS General Aviation “Not all rich people like flying, and some of those who do may not have the time. Also, it’s not something that people would do on a regular basis, ” Cheng said. But given the large population and the thirst of the rich for new lifestyles, it was still a prosperous business for Cheng. Like other general aviation companies on the mainland, his company relies on a wide range of other services including charters, pilot training and emergency rescues. Wu Xiaole, deputy general manager of Sichuan Tuofeng General Aviation, agreed that few operators had profited greatly from scenic tours thus far, as the costs were so high that they had to set prices at a level beyond the reach of the general public. “Take the most commonly-used helicopter R44 for example, the purchase price at home is 25 per cent higher than abroad due to high taxes levied by the Chinese government, and the operating and maintenance costs are also more than 25 per cent higher as we need to import most of the things needed,” he explained. Tuofeng, which has two airports in Sichuan, could make over 100,000 yuan a day from sightseeing tours during major holidays, but on other days, to make this much could take more than a month, said Wu. He Anhua said that last year, according to unpublished statistics from authorities, about 11,000 hours of low-altitude sightseeing tours were recorded, which he said translated to sales revenue of 100 million yuan. This was still only 1.3 per cent of the mainland general aviation industry’s total revenue, he said. He Yunbin, an aero sports enthusiast in Shanghai, said safety was a major concern for most tourists, as air accidents had frequently grabbed news headlines in recent years. “It also depends on the places people visit. For those who are visiting Sanya, where travelling costs are high, for example, having a seafood meal can cost several thousand yuan, then spending 1,000 yuan on an air tour seems nothing,” he said. “But for tourists in most tourist destinations, they may have only budgeted only a few thousand yuan for the whole trip,” he added.