Keep Them Occupied - a review of Imperial Tours

Send those friends and relations off on an unusual summer tour

by Peter Neville-Hadley, Editor-in-Chief
Picnic by the Ming Tombs

Despite repeated predictions that in a very short period China will overtake France as the number one travel market in the world, the opening up of China's travel industry to the creation of Sino-foreign joint-ventures last year has been met with little enthusiasm, not least because it has yet to be deregulated sufficiently to guarantee a reasonable return.

Hopes that the improvement in service brought about by more domestic competition would now be accelerated have been dashed. But more choice is nevertheless on the way for foreign visitors to China, represented by a growth in small foreign companies operated not by those who see China as just another market, but those who use their own love of the country to create imaginative and reliably comfortable tours.

If you want to relieve yourself of the need to entertain visiting firends and relations for the whole of their sojourns this summer, a recently formed American company can take them off your hands. It offers five-star, tailor-made special interest and small group tours, which are constantly monitored to make sure the fifth star never takes a day off.

Pleasing the customer

Imperial Tours is the creation of a Briton and a Korean-American who met while students at Beijing Language and Culture University. Guy Rubin gave up a career in the arcane world of strategy consulting to come to China to write a novel, and ended up starting the US-registered Imperial Tours with Nancy Kim.

The company has been operational for about 18 months. Bespoke tours are created to suit interests in everything form botany to Chinese furniture, but even the regular 15 day small goup tours which tackle some of China's greatest hits - Beijing, Xi'an, Guilin, Hangzhou and Shanghai - include unusual elements such as picnics at the less-visited of the Ming Tombs or dinner al fresco on the shores of Beijing's Qian Hai.

"We've personally eaten our way through most of the menus of the restaurants, and we personally interview all the guides. We also escort all major tours ourselves," says Rubin. From Xi'an to Suzhou this avoids problems of the "Oh, we're really full - you're in the old wing this time" variety.

"The biggest problem is service - the idea of pleasing the customer. Here, the main idea is often getting away with the least expense that seems to matter," says Kim. Having made exact selections for hotels, restaurants and other services, the company books what it can itself, and the remainder as the law requires, through a Chinese agent. But the personal touches - an album of photos from the trip, a hotpot to act as a memento of an open-air banquet - and the attention to details all too often absent from tour arrangments in China, make all the difference.

July 22-July 5, 2000 CITY WEEKEND



Imperial Tours, 511 W Orange Grove Ave., Sierra Madre, CA 91024 United States, Tel: +1 626 836 7270, EMAIL