We’ve long complained about Chinese admission fees, but our most recent experiences have raised our objections to the level of a post on the blog as a warning to travelers. China’s admission fees are high and seemingly increasing out of control.
I am writing this from Dunhuang, where a visit to the Mogao Caves costs RMB 160 ($24), plus RMB 20 ($3) additional if you need a foreign language guide. For two English language tours this adds up to around $54, or for a family for four Chinese, about $100. What does this equal in the local economy? A good hotel room in Dunhuang for two costs RMB 120 ($18). A terrific and satisfying bowl of noodles at a restaurant costs RMB 10 ($1.50), a more substantial meal for two perhaps RMB 50 ($7.50). This means that room and board for two adds up to perhaps RMB 180 a day–the same price as one entry ticket to the Mogao Caves. Where else in the world does one admission ticket for the local attraction add up to the cost of lodging and meals for two?
Some may applaud China for at least having a flat admission scheme, unlike many poorer countries that have dual/foreigner pricing, for example in India where admission fees for foreigners can cost up to 25 times the admission fee for locals. But, at Chinese fee levels, I wonder whether that’s really a virtue. A low-level Chinese worker makes perhaps RMB 1000 ($150) per month. Could such a person ever hope to see any of China’s principal attractions? I often think of the hypothetical rural Chinese worker on a trip to Beijing, who can’t afford to see the Forbidden City (admission likely around RMB 100, or $15, these days), because the ticket costs the equivalent of several days’ pay. Clearly, a place such as the Mogao Caves is totally out of reach of working class Chinese. Is there any other country in the world where the poor live without any hope of seeing the country’s greatest natural and historical treasures, because they will never be able to afford a ticket?
Well, so it’s sad for the Chinese poor, but how about for the (relatively) rich first world tourists? Chinese admission fees are now at such high levels that not only will a lot of younger travelers, such as students, skip key sites to save on admissions (after all, one ticket could eat up more than a whole day’s budget), but even many older, moneyed tourists will skip sites out of principle and because they are such poor value. The Mogao Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rewarding on many levels–after all, people come all the way to Dunhuang just to see them–and they are undeniably “worth” RMB 180. But “Grape Valley Scenic Are” in Turpan–could it really be worth RMB 60 ($9)? We will never know, since we thought it extremely unlikely. And all of the other secondary sites around Turpan that cost from RMB 20-50 ($3-7.50) each?
Schedule of admissions fees in Turpan
Some cases rise to the level of stupidity. Outside Turpan is a range of mountains called the Flaming Mountains, and famous not only for their unusual structure but also for the notice that they have received historically. It is in any case a pleasant drive outside of town. But, unbelievably, the Chinese (it is never clear to me which of these are set up by the government directly or by some sort of person who has bought development rights) have set up a fence in front of the “best” part, enclosing an area of perhaps a square kilometer, put up some stupid bronze statues and labeled it “Flaming Mountains Scenic Area,” with a RMB 40 ($6) per person admission fee. Further income for the project is derived from the camel, hanggliding, ultralight, etc., rides that are offered inside. Who would pay this admission, given that a view of the mountains is available from just outside the fence? (The answer is, hundreds of thousands of Chinese.)
Other cases seem almost immoral, or at least grotesquely greedy. Near Dunhuang are some giant sand dunes, rising hundreds of meters high. They are indeed an impressive site, especially seen from a distance against the city itself. But, believe it or not, the admission to these sand dunes is RMB 120 ($18), again with much additional income derived from camel rides (RMB 60, or $9) and such. What justifies such a fee to a natural site? [As with the Flaming Mountains, it is impracticable to “fence” the entire dunes, and so energetic and frugal travelers (or just plain stubborn ones like ourselves) can just walk into the dunes a couple kilometers west–although the famous lake is located in the fee area, it can be seen quite well from above by climbing one of the “free” dunes.] A few hours outside of Kashgar, in the middle of nowhere though on the Karakoram Highway, is a famous lake named Karakul. [See my post of 7.11.] While there is no fence or anything of the sort, tourists are hounded persistently to purchase tickets of RMB 50 ($7.50) each, and we were told that this fee is payable if you are within 10 kilometers of the lake. The only development that could justify such a fee is a rather ugly, obtrusive hotel and the framework of another that they are building–it is sad and a bit sadistic that those seeking to enjoy the pristine beauty of the lake are in fact paying for the marring of it. “National Parks” in China cost up to RMB 200 ($30) per person, along with additional fees for cable cars (RMB 80, or $12) and such. One New York Times article noted that a trip for four to a Chinese national park could very easily consume a month’s salary for a working class Chinese family. Should natural sites really turn into such huge cash cows? Or do such things really belong to the public, and not just for people who can pay?
Going past the fence at the Dunhuang dunes
Dunhuang brought to mind how admission fees in China have risen such that they are, now, expensive in absolute and not only in relative, local terms. The caves for $27, the dunes for $18. Do tickets for comparable sites anywhere else in the world cost as much? India, even with its foreigner pricing, charges 250 rupees ($6) for the Ajanta Caves, which are similar to and in many ways even more impressive than Mogao. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I imagine has a budget many many times that of the Mogao Caves, charges $20 (which is actually “optional” as it is a donation). U.S. National Parks charge $20 per entry for a carload of people, a ticket valid for a week. Exactly what multiple of that is China charging for its national parks?
We’ve heard Chinese admissions justified on account of shortage and crowding. The theory is that there are just so many Chinese people that admission fees have to be high to keep crowds to manageable levels. Of course, there are many other ways to control crowds than high ticket prices, and in many cases (such as Karakul) the attractions couldn’t possibly get crowded even if there were no admission charge. And to limit crowds at places by allowing access only to the rich? Isn’t that rather perverse for a nominally communist country?
At the time that the most recent Lonely Planet (published in 2007) was written, the Dunhuang caves cost RMB 120 and the Dunhuang dunes RMB 80. They now cost RMB 180 and RMB 120, a 50% increase in a bit more than a year. This 50% increase is of course enhanced by the rise in the Renminbi, resulting in an even greater increase in dollar terms. Ticket prices will soon be, if they are not already, at levels which foreign tourists will find simply shocking. I predict that it will be, soon, a significant deterrent for many from coming to China at all. Of course, this doesn’t matter to the ticket sellers, since domestic tourists far outnumber foreign ones and for whatever reason many Chinese people seem to have no problem paying outrageous sums for sometimes half-baked attractions. But what kind of message does it send to visitors about China, about how it apportions cultural and recreational activities for its people? What about the accessibility of such sites for travelers who have in fact come a long way, even if no-one asked them to?