>BY: Yeung Xintian
The dust has barely settled in quake-hit Sichuan, and the locals are busy rebuilding their homes and lives - and their name as a renowned tourist paradise.
With 400,000 workers in an industry that generated 121.7 billion yuan ($24.3b) last year, tourism is the lifeblood of the province, and accounted for 11.6 per cent of its gross domestic product, according to a Bernama news agency report.
Though badly battered, with 568 of the 4,000 scenic areas damaged by the earthquake and losses of 27.84 billion yuan, the Chinese are in no way beaten.
"The single most important thing now is to rebuild tourists' confidence, and we are taking measures to do so," promised Mr Zhang Gu, head of the Sichuan Provincial Tourism Bureau, speaking to the Xinhua news agency.
And they have pulled out all the stops with extensive promotions, from free admission to tourist sites like the Dujiangyan scenic spot to expanded air services and slashed prices for hotels and transportation.
Thirteen cities and prefectures have been re-opened to tourists to boost the industry..
Jiuzhaigou, a scenic area in the Min Shan mountain range, was one of the most badly hit. Mr Feng Gang, vice-head of the Jiuzhaigou Tourism Bureau, told Bernama that with many roads destroyed, tourist numbers have dwindled from a pre-quake high of 6,000 to 7,000 to just "dozens of tourists every day".
Many Singaporeans, who would in other times have flocked to the area to admire its intense palette of autumn colours, have held back.
Bookings have fallen
Said Ms Eileen Oh, ASA Holidays' deputy general manager of marketing communications: "Last year by this time, many had booked their tours so as to ensure the availability of seats. This year, bookings to Jiuzhaigou for the same period (September and October) have fallen by more than 50 per cent."
Commonwealth Travel Service has actually cancelled all its packages to the Sichuan area from May to July. "The safety of our travellers is paramount, and we don't wish to compromise that," said Ms Joycelyn Su, 33, vice-president of outbound tours and marketing.
To remedy the situation, the tourism bureau is working to expand air routes to Jiuzhaigou.
A senior official with the tourism bureau said: "We are also cooperating with the five-star hotels, airlines and travel agencies to design routes with comparatively low prices, which will help tourism recover in this region."
The Sichuan Provincial Tourism Bureau projects that rural tourism will recover next year. The whole industry, including disaster areas, was expected to fully recover in about 2010.
While some Chinese travel agency workers are optimistic that tourist numbers will increase by September or October, some of their Singapore counterparts are more cautious.
ASA's Ms Oh felt this may be a bit too optimistic - at least with regard to Singaporeans, who "tend to be more cautious when travelling".
Anticipating this, Commonwealth Travel will be flying their staff over next month to assess the situation, said Ms Su.
"Once safety is assured, we will hold promotions and educational talks to inform the public," she said. "Tourist dollars are essential in aiding the rebuilding of Sichuan, and we want to bring them back."
Indeed, this and the numerous perks offered might just be sufficient to convince bargain-savvy Singaporeans.
This article was first published in The New Paper on June 27, 2008.