The ongoing battle among tour operators to China (China Spree, China Focus Travel and Friendly Planet) has reached price war proportions.
Early in October, China Spree Travel announced that in January and February, it would offer an eight-night, three-city (Beijing, Xian, Shanghai), air-and-land package for only $888 per person, including round-trip air from San Francisco (add $300 from New York City). On China Spree's package, you also receive lodgings with private bath, buffet breakfast daily, five lunches, daily escorted sightseeing and all transportation (air and train) within China.
The feisty president of China Spree, Wilson Wu, has often buttonholed me at regional travel shows to tout the quality and low price of his tours, or to advise of his intention to become the biggest operator of tours to China. He has now used some confident language to accompany the gauntlet he has tossed down: "While the Golden Triangle — the name of the $888 program — may be the lowest-priced tour on the market," says his news release, "it's also the best-quality, with more included features than any other."
That's not quite so. The program does not include daily dinners, as the others do (in fact, it provides no evening meals at all), and consists of only eight nights in China, as compared with China Focus' nine nights. However, I regard the elimination of dinner as a plus, enabling you to make your own choice of the many fine restaurants in these three cities.
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Of equal significance, however, is China Spree's decision to raise the price by only $200 in March (to a total of $1,088), and by a small $200 more from April to mid-June. Thus, in what is decidedly a high season to China (April, May and early June), Americans will pay only $1,288 — far less than anyone else is charging — for an extensive tour of China's highlights.
To achieve this dramatic reduction in tour costs, China Spree — according to Wilson Wu — has obtained the cooperation of all the major suppliers of China travel: Air China (reducing the trans-Pacific cost), several four-star hotels (passengers will always be accommodated in four-star facilities), the operators of motorcoach sightseeing.
It's clear that the Chinese authorities have "leaned" on each of these groups to keep travel to China vibrant and effective in a time of economic slowdown. (In its supervision of other Chinese industries, China apparently has achieved a faster and more substantial recovery from the recession than any other nation.)
There is, as yet, no reaction from China Spree's chief competitors in the low-cost field, which are China Focus Travel and Friendly Planet. After offering an air-included price of $999 for many of their winter departures, they have not yet detailed what they will be charging in late winter and early spring. I would expect a matching of China Spree's lead price, which will result in a general acknowledgment that China has now become the single cheapest international destination for Americans.
What equivalent tour in Europe, the Middle East or the Caribbean could possibly match the value of a comprehensive eight-night air-and-land package, supplying long-range air transportation, using four-star hotels, and selling for only $888?
For all the details of China Spree's offer, log on to its Web site (www.chinaspree.com), then click on "Specials," then on "10 Day China's Golden Triangle," and when a photograph of Xian's Terra Cotta Warriors appears, look immediately below that image for the words "Dates and Pricing." Note that the $888 package requires a $200 deposit, which can be made by credit card. But thereafter, final payment must be in the form of a check or money order, thus sparing the tour operator the cost of processing a further credit-card payment.