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Hutong Tours Unveil Innermost Parts of Beijing
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"Watch your step. Sit back and off we go," says a cheerful tour leader as a dozen tricycles carrying two foreign tourists each set out on a tour into the innermost parts of Beijing -- its "hutongs", or laneways.

They were followed, in just a minute or two, by more international tourists who hurried off coaches and onto the exotic sightseeing vehicles pedaled by men in Chinese style jackets.

A tour into at least 20 laneways intertwined in the Shichahai area a few blocks from the Forbidden City has topped the agenda of many international tourists to Beijing. The trip, lasting 2.5 to three hours, costs 180 yuan (US$22.5) per person.

"This is something new. We never saw anything like this in Europe," said Betto Veenenbos, a retiree from Holland, as he posed for one last photo with his wife and the tricycle rider at the end of their hutong tour. "The lanes are so clean, with no dirt or beggars. Every building has a long history behind it."

As first-time traveler to Beijing, Veenenbos said the "jiaozi",or dumplings, they had for lunch in the traditional courtyard of a native Beijing family were delicious. "It's nice to experience the life of the commoners here."

Wouker Pietermaat, a 30-year-old soil analyst, said he would love to tour around the hutongs again behind the handlebars of the tricycle. "But we're staying in Beijing for only three days and will leave for Xi'an tomorrow."

Despite Beijing's fast evolution into a modern metropolis, nearly 2,000 hutongs have survived. Those in the Shichahai area are the best preserved and have received nearly six million international tourists and 10 million domestic ones since 1994. The 2,000 courtyards in Shichahai area are home to 64,800 Beijingers.

Beijing Hutong Tourist Agency is the first to promote hutong tours in 1994 and is receiving around 180,000 tourists a year.

"Business is good. Sometimes tourists are waiting even before our working hours start at 8:00 a.m.," said a tricycle rider who declined to be named.

"It's more than a sightseeing tour," said the company's vice president Jing Xueming. "By traveling to the innermost parts of Beijing, the visitors will hopefully have a glimpse of Beijing's culture and the locals' life."

Jing's office is located right in the Shichahai area but he spends most of his working hours on an Iveco that forever parks at the southern entrance of Qianhai Xijie lane that is the starting point of the hutong tour. His 130-strong tricycle fleet lines up neatly in its front.

"The competition is rather fierce these days," he said. "In the Shichahai area alone, 22 travel services are providing hutong tours."

In 2004, the most recent time that data is available, hutong tours contributed four million yuan (US$500,000) of tourism income, said Wang Shun, an official with the Xicheng District branch of Beijing Tourism Bureau.

"This is not a big amount compared with Beijing's US$3.62 billion foreign currency income in the tourism sector last year," said Wang. "But it's an environment-friendly way to develop tourism and increase income for hutong residents."

Local families who help host the tourists in Shichahai area reported an average income rise of 10,000 yuan (US$1,250) last year, he said.

Many other Chinese cities have also opened their centuries-old residential compounds to help foreigners learn more about the local people's lives and facilitate their communication with the Chinese commoners in a more open society.

This has added a new vitality to China's tourism industry, which has witnessed fast growth over the past two and a half decades of reform and opening up.

China has received 1.24 billion international tourists and earned US$219 billion of foreign tourism revenue since 1978.

The National Tourism Administration says China received 120 million international tourist arrivals last year. The number is expected to grow by eight percent in the next five years and the country is likely to receive 137 million visitors by 2019 to become the world's biggest tourist destination.

The growth rate, however, is more significant in outbound tourism.

In 2005, the Chinese made 31 million trips overseas and the figure is expected to grow by 10 percent this year.

The tourism administration refused to give a breakdown of how many Chinese mainlanders actually traveled to a foreign country, but it did say that Asian destinations, particularly Hong Kong and Macao, remained the top choices for domestic travelers.

"I'll visit Hong Kong before I travel any further," said Li Jing, a 33-year-old civil servant in Beijing. "It won't take too long or cost too much, and my three-year-old son will love the Disneyland."

(Xinhua News Agency October 1, 2006)

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