BEIJING, Sept. 30 (Xinhua) -- Ma Weiwei, a travel agent at a China Comfort Travel outlet in downtown Beijing, was a little upset as he handled a stack of tour contracts for the upcoming seven-day National Day holiday.
"It was twice in thickness last year," he said. "The number of customers has dropped by nearly 60 percent from last year."
The drop in customers is not just a headache for Ma, but for many of China's travel agencies, which heavily rely on package tours to profit.
Tour prices, especially those for Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand and Malaysia, have shot up, in large part because of China's first tourism law, which will come into effect on Oct. 1.
The new law bans the rampant practice of "zero- or negative-fare tours" in the country, which refers to tour services sold by travel agents at or below cost in order to attract travelers, who are later forced to purchase goods or tip agents during their tours.
As a result of adding previously hidden costs to package prices, the price for a seven-day tour to Thailand at Ma's company has shot up to 6,800 yuan (1,106 U.S. dollars) from the previous price of 3,800 yuan.
Many travel agencies have promised that there will be no purchasing, tipping, or paid travel sessions other than those listed in the contracts.
Du Yili, deputy director of the China National Tourism Administration, said that rather than considering the changes to be price hikes, "the current rises signal a return to the normal level."
"It shows that the new law has already had a positive impact," Du said. "The travel agencies have adjusted their business operations according to the rules stipulated in the law."
"If a temporary market downturn were to bring long-term and healthy development of the tourism industry, it would be worthwhile," she said.
Dai Bin, head of the China Tourism Academy, pointed out that the influence of rising prices should not be overestimated, because package tours only accounted for about 3.8 percent of total domestic trips made last year.
The tourism law is designed to address industry woes, protect tourists' interests, and foster the industry's sustainable growth.
Apart from "zero- or negative-fare tours," the new law also outlined measures to address key problems -- unfair competition, wanton price hikes and congestion in scenic spots -- which have plagued the industry and aroused strong public discontent.
The new law also includes clauses ensuring tourists' rights to know, choose, receive aid, and be respected during their travels, while advising them to behave at the same time.
The long-awaited law, which had been in development for about 30 years, was adopted by China's top legislature on April 25.
"It is high time to introduce this law," Dai Bin said.
"The law answers both the demand to regulate the fast-developing tourism industry and the call from the central authority to build the sector into a pillar industry," he said.
The country's tourism sector has undergone dramatic changes over the past decades.
In the 1980s, tourism remained a privilege for only a few in China, mainly foreigners and overseas Chinese, while ordinary Chinese mainly acted as service providers in the sector.
Over the past 30 years, the sector has gradually grown into a pillar industry of the national economy, and China's domestic travel market has grown into the world's largest.
China now has about 25,000 travel agencies, more than 20,000 scenic spots, and more than 13.5 million people employed in the tourism industry.
The major consumers in the travel market now are members of the general public.
Figures from China's tourism authority show that domestic tourists made 2.96 billion trips and Chinese tourists traveling overseas made 83.18 million trips in 2012 -- about two to three trips per person a year on average.
China previously had no specific law concerning tourism, but did have some administrative rules concerning travel agencies and tour guides, which have failed to solve many "deep-rooted problems" regarding the sector.
Dun Jidong, senior travel marketing manager at China's leading online travel agency, Ctrip, said the new law will inevitably lead to a reshuffle in the tourism industry.
"By setting legal curbs on business operations, illegal practices will be phased out and regular travel agencies will have greater room for development," he said.
Dun said the new law will require travel agencies to use product innovation and high-quality service, instead of tempting prices, to attract customers.
"The new law, however, has to be strictly carried out to have its due effect," he said. "A 'zero tolerance' attitude should be adopted to counter violations."