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Chinese tourists are gouged (by the Chinese)

Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images

Chinese tourists pose for photos in front of a portrait of the late Chairman Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Feb. 27, 2012.

BEIJING – It can be exorbitantly expensive to travel in China – and Chinese tourists are fed-up.

For instance, Sanya, a big resort city on China’s southern tropical island province of Hainan, is usually a dream destination for winter holiday makers. But it is becoming a target of netizens complaining about being ruthlessly ripped off there. One irate tourist recently complained on Weibo, China’s popular Twitter-like microblogging site, that he paid almost $635 dollars for a meal of three dishes including one fish.

Tourists everywhere could complain about getting gouged.  But it seems that Chinese tourists truly are justified in their gripes.

For example, a recent study published by Netease.com, one of China’s biggest Web portals,  borrowed the concept of the Big Mac index from the Economist to compare the prices of tourist attractions in both China and overseas.

The Economist’s Big Mac index is based on the “theory of purchasing-power parity.” 

They use the cost of a Big Mac in the U.S. as a benchmark and compare it to the local cost of a Big Mac to create a comparison between the currencies.

The Netease.com article borrowed the Big Mac index idea to compare entrance fees charged at Chinese tourist attractions versus those overseas.

The statistics are eye-opening.  

Andy Wong / AP

Tourists visit Tiananmen Gate on China's National Day in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2011

For example, the cost of admission to Jiuzhaigou National Park in southwest China, a U.N. biosphere reserve famous for its shimmering turquoise lakes and snow-crusted mountain peaks, costs 220 Yuan ($35) to get in, or, 14.3 Big Macs.

In contrast, Yellowstone National Park costs an adult entering by foot or bike $12 dollars, the equivalent of 2.7 Big Macs. (It costs $25 dollars for one vehicle, including all passengers).

In Paris, the Louvre Museum costs 2.9 Big Macs, while a ticket to China’s Palace Museum inside the Forbidden City in Beijing is as much as 3.9 Big Macs.

The well-known Great Wall just outside Beijing also looks expensive – its cost is 2.9 Big Macs, compared to the Taj Mahal, which is a quarter of one Big Mac (for Indian tourists; foreigners are charged more).

No regulation
“There’s no government supervision of ticket prices,” said Wu Jingmin, a former tour guide who agitated the tourism industry in 2006 by publishing his book “How Can I Not Rip You Off? – A Tour Guide’s Monologue.” In the book, Wu exposed how the industry scams tourists, from tour agencies to restaurants and even local governments.

Besides high admission fees in China, travelers also often have to pay additional costs at tourist sites for such items as shuttle buses or cable cars.

At Changbaishan, the sacred mountain on the border of China and North Korea, a tourist must buy three different tickets at $16 a piece if they wish to take in the view from its three different peaks, and that doesn’t include the extra $14 for the shuttle bus. 

Chinese tourists also normally travel during one of the three one-week-long national holidays.  Even if that means going to Beijing’s Forbidden City with 130,000 more visitors than on a usual day, or slowly pushing their way forward on the Great Wall when it is as packed as a rush hour subway.

“The regulations for ticket prices are in complete disorder,” Wu, the former tour guide, told NBC News in a phone interview. “Local price regulators usually say ‘yes’ to tourist attractions, no matter what they want to charge. Then the tourist-trap managers give a big discount to tour agencies, who make the money from selling very expensive tickets to tourists.” 

Wu complained that little is being done to remedy the situation.  

“The natural resources belong to the people. They just build a wall around it and then charge a high ticket price to the people, who don’t really have a choice. This industry’s future is worrying,” added Wu.  

He’s says he’s planning to create his own tour packages to counter the notorious prices in Sanya.