China on the rise: What is a hutong?

Bart Tompkins

Managing Director, China, Amadeus IT Group

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If you’ve ever travelled to Beijing, you might have noticed the winding alley ways preserved in certain parts of town. These are typically called hutongs. Historically, hutongs were also once used as the lower level of administrative geographical divisions within cities in ancient China to divide the higher classes of people from the lower.

beijing street

Photo by Jorge Lascar

Clearly, hutongs aren’t used for that purpose anymore and the country doesn’t divide its people so radically. A lot is changing, including the way people travel.

Let me give you a personal example to emphasize what I mean.

I first visited China in 1989, almost 25 years ago; I visited, among other places, Beijing.  At that time I remember a lot of hutongs, low rise buildings and many, many bicycles. And very few cars.

Fast forward to 2012, my second visit to Beijing, and there are fewer bicycles, far fewer hutongs, and an awful lot of cars. In fact Beijing has more cars, six million of them, than my birth country of New Zealand has people. And today’s Beijing skyline or Shanghai or many other Chinese cities, competes equally with any of the top cities in the world.

Back in 1989, I was also lucky enough to visit the wonderful Thai Island of Koh Samui.

Back then, Koh Samui hardly had a single tourist on the island. The roads were minimal, with just a few backpackers and young tourists. I stayed in a very cheap and basic hotel, which was really all that was on offer for visitors. I was there for three weeks and cannot remember seeing a single Chinese person.

Just last year I visited Koh Samui again. I stayed at an excellent resort and enjoyed a relaxing, although unfortunately short holiday break. At breakfast my wife and I, as I think many of us do, like to look around the dining area to observe the fellow guests. The most noticeable was that about half, if not more of the guests were Chinese. Already very significant - but what I found to be even more surprising, as I discovered during the course of our stay, was that nearly all the other guests were expats living in China on holiday in Thailand. So it is fair to say that virtually the wholehotelwas occupied by people connected to China!

It’s obvious that travel to and from China is on the rise, but did you know that last year, only 6% of a possible 1.3 billion Chinese travelled overseas? We are just at the tip of the iceberg….

Download our reportShaping the future of travel in China: The big FOUR travel effectsfor more.


Asia Pacific, China, Research