by Xinhua writers Cheng Lu, Wang Wen and Jiang Chenrong
XI'AN, Dec. 29 (Xinhua) -- As China prepares for the annual Lunar New Year tourism spike, many tour guides face hard choices in the light of the new Tourism Law.
The law came into effect on Oct. 1, and banned forced shopping trips. Three months later, substantial numbers of tour guides are looking for new jobs, since much of their income came from the commissions they earned by herding tourists into shops.
Historically, travel agencies were able to offer tours which on the face it seemed cheap but came laden with hidden charges, principally commissions in partner stores.
Travel agencies have had no choice but to raise tour package prices, leading to a steep drop in the number of tourists.
Nearly 70,000 travelers from the Chinese mainland departed Shanghai Pudong International Airport in September, and the number was slashed to fewer than 30,000 in October, according to Shanghai airport frontier inspection department.
Zheng Yan, 26, is a tour guide in Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province. At an age when most girls of her age stockpile makeup and perfume, she is worried about how she is going to pay her rent of 1,300 yuan (214.8 U.S. dollars).
A few months ago, Zheng's job was profitable and flexible, but the situation has completely changed. She plans to quit the job and prepare for the civil service exam next year.
"The tourism law has had far-reaching effects on travel agencies and tour guides," said Zheng.
"I worked very hard but failed to support myself. No basic pay or insurance. No kickbacks. I feel lost now," she said.
Since the law took force, seven out of 30 guides from her agency have left, but their new jobs are far from satisfactory.
Sun Xiaoxia, a tour guide in Zhangjiajie, a destination in central China's Hunan Province, is in a similar predicament. She has been a tour guide for more than a decade and, before October, earned nearly 10,000 yuan a month. Since the law kicked kickbacks into touch, she is down to about 200 yuan a day.
According to the law, travel agencies must contract guides and give them basic pay and social insurance.
"But with a rented office, a computer and a few phones, anyone can set up a travel agency and do business from almost anywhere in China. These cowboy agencies are not interested in guides'personal problems," Sun said.
There are more than 100 agencies and 10,000 tour guides in Zhangjiajie.
"The good and the bad are mixed. Only one agency is willing to provide a monthly salary of 1,200 yuan in peak seasons," Sun bemoaned.
This failure or inability to provide a basic living wage means for many guides it comes down to this: stay or quit.
"It was not easy for those who left," said Sun. Some started small business, others went into sales.
Wei, manager of a small agency in Xi'an, is concerned that he won't survive the restructuring, let alone be able to support tour guides.
"Since 2006, China's travel agencies have said farewell to easy money and enormous profits," he said, "and now we are facing a bottom line below five percent."
Things have been made considerably worse by the government offensive against waste and corruption which has hit package tours hard. Package tours have been central to the growth of domestic tourism.
China now has about 25,000 travel agencies and more than 13.5 million people are employed in the industry.
The tourism market has had a tendency to rely on domestic mass consumption, which has forced traditional tourist enterprises to try new ideas, said Du Jiang, deputy director of China's National Tourism Administration.
With the tourism law and the current frenzy in China to buy every conceivable item online, smaller travel agencies are struggling. Some will close and others will merge. While the industry reformulates itself, tour guides find themselves between a rock and a hard place, said Zhang Yan of Shaanxi Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.
They can neither break the law by luring clients to buy overpriced items from their associates, nor accept cuts in their earnings. "What they really need to do is to transform themselves," said Zhang.
"They must understand the times of windfall profits have passed. Everything has returned to the rational. The only way to earn money is to provide quality services," Zhang said.
Guides need to radically enrich their knowledge; otherwise they will be knocked out by the market, she said.
The tourism law is designed to address the industry's problems, protect tourists' interests, and foster sustainable growth.
"China's tourism industry is restructuring. Unqualified agencies and guides will be forced to quit the market," Zhang said, "but we need time to iron out the creases."
"As long as they get a reasonable income, I believe those who really love this job will stay," Zheng Yan said.