If you planning a China trip and would like the help of a tour company, should you choose a Chinese or a foreign operator? This page should help in making the right choice for you.
Here we ask, "Is a Chinese or foreign company best for a China trip" from several aspects: communication, China knowledge, product design, authentic China experiences, flexibility/customizing, value for money, and problem solving (during the trip).
A tour operator in your country will have the same language and culture as you, so communication will be easier, and they'll know you better. They'll have a website designed specifically for your perusal. Their service will on your wavelength, and in terms you can easily understand.
Chinese or China-based tour companies often struggle to bridge the gap into the English-speaking market, they may lose to their foreign competitors in communication.
The more-experienced and larger China companies like China Highlights are more proficient in English (some have foreign staff for English consultancy like the author of this article), so communication is passable, or as close to native English as possible.
A benefit of communicating with a Chinese travel agent is that you are getting a China experience even before you leave your country!
2. China Knowledge
Foreign tour companies know you well; China not so well. It's a lot like going to foreign China with (knowledgeable) foreign companions.
Foreign tour companies are on the outside looking in: introducing similar people to a foreign country.
A China-based tour company will be introducing you to their home country from your first contact with them, and the best ones take a particular pride in doing it well. A China-based tour operator knows China and its tourism better.
Chinese tour companies are working from the inside out: introducing their country to foreign people.
However, not all Chinese companies exploit their specialist local knowledge in their tours, preferring to offer low-input, low-cost itineraries. If you really want to get to know China, go with a Chinese agency who use their wealth of knowledge to create a tour that satisfies your China interests.
3. Tour Design
Foreign tour companies have the same cultural background as you, and their tour designs will reflect that (if they have invested time in designing their own China tours). Expect products that will give you a familiar tour experience to what you are used to, and winning formulas that have been used to introduce other countries.
There are basically three types of foreign tour companies, who design three types of tours:
a) The "Safari-Operator"
These companies design their own brand of foreign-experience or adventure small group tours (for several countries) through actually going there, e.g. Intrepid, Peregrine, Contiki: the "safari-operators".
b) The "Middle-Men"
Then there are those who just sell on traditional Chinese group tours through a foreign platform: the middle-men.
These foreign companies are re-packaging tours designed and even owned by Chinese operators, with an added cost for their selling it to you. If there is little China knowledge demonstrated by the staff or website, then "middle-men" is probably what they are.
c) The "Explorer-Guides"
Lastly, there are the (usually small) foreign companies who arrange private tailor-made tours through their own limited China knowledge and contacts: the explorer-guides. These are particularly useful if you are after a specialism like photography or mountaineering.
Chinese Tour Operators — Two Types
For a tour design that's uniquely Chinese, go with a Chinese company… In China, there are basically two sorts of tour operator offering two travel styles: the traditional large group tour and the private small group tour.
Most of China's large group tour outfits show little originality in tour design and have been herding tourists round the same places for decades. This is lowest-possible-cost tourism for the masses. Foreign "middle-men" sell on these mundane products at a markup.
China's private travel enterprises are far more innovative and competitive. Chinese private tour companies typically invest far more in tour design, every year refining and developing their itineraries and options to give customers an ever-better China experience. See what we have New This Year.
4. Authentic China Experiences
Generally with a local tour company you can get more in touch with China.
Although foreign tour companies, especially those that are adventure-trip-orientated, do arrange many local experiences through exploration visits and local outfits, the range is usually limited compared to what a local company with more local contacts can do.
Foreign companies who design their own small group tours often espouse greater concern for responsible travel, tourism ethics, and eco-tourism. This is also catching on with some Chinese operators, but more slowly. It is something that China Highlights are actively investing in. See more on How to Travel Ethically in China .
Most foreign companies don't offer any option to change the tour schedule or content, providing fixed-itinerary, fixed-start-date group tours. You join the tour like a railcar joining a train!
Many Chinese agents also just offer traditional large group tours with no flexibility, however they will at least be able to offer more of them. Where a foreign company may only have a tour departing once a week, a Chinese company may have several fixed tours starting every day to choose from. Middle-men foreign companies sell on these inflexible China-agent group tours.
Foreign companies who tailor private tours for their customers have more limited knowledge and resources than a comparable Chinese travel agency. While they could book a different hotel for you, or even something different on the itinerary, it would have to be somewhere they're familiar with, and could arrange with their local agent.
The most flexibility and customizing ability is found with Chinese companies who have at their disposal a vast range of tourist industry contacts and experience in tailor-making tours.
Large or locally-based Chinese companies are familiar with a greater range of hotels, restaurants, sights, activities, etc., and can advise and book according to your needs/interests.
6. Value for Money (overheads + what you want)
A China-based tour operator has lower overhead costs than a company based in the West, meaning you will usually have the same essential service for less with a Chinese company.
Foreign tour companies necessarily use Chinese agents, and some just resell Chinese tour company tours, with less control over them than a Chinese company. In this case, the foreign "middle-man" markup option is definitely less value for money.
While a small group tour designed by a foreign company will probably be more your style than a traditional Chinese large group tour, it will cost more for doing many of the same things. Probably it will be better value for money, maybe not.
However, the recommended way to find value for money in China is to have your tour tailor-made by a local expert. Then you will only do what you want, how you want, without paying for all the standardized group tour inclusions. See Why Your China Trip Should Be a Private Tour… Not a Group Tour .
Apart from a few small, often specialist, foreign outfits, Chinese companies like ourselves are the place to come for customized private tours.
7. Problem Solving (during your trip)
What if all does not go according to plan on your trip? What if you become ill or injured? What if you lose something important, or are the victim of crime? What if your transport is delayed, or the weather disrupts plans? What if a hotel isn't to your liking or the tour isn't up to expectations?
What if you'd just like to do something different on the spur of the moment?
Foreign companies aren't as much help.
If you experience problems during your trip and contact a foreign company, they will be comparatively slow to no help at all.
The typical response will be: "We're sorry you are experiencing this issue. However, there isn't anything we can do about it. Have you tried contacting your local tour leader? We will contact the local agent as soon as possible (when an English speaker is available in China, i.e. you're on your own now)."
China-based companies can often fix problems on the spot.
Usually a China-based company will be able to solve on-tour problems quicker.
Some China tour companies (like ourselves) offer a 24/7 helpline for while you are traveling. You can speak to a Chinese travel expert, who can immediately address a situation. A China tour operator has the advantage of language and familiarity with China and Chinese establishments.
If we can't solve your on-tour problems on the spot, we will stand with you through any adjustments to make your tour the best it can be.
China Highlights - A local Chinese Tour Company
We are in China. We only do China, and do it well. We specialize in authentic Chinese experiences and tailor-made trips.
Unlike those foreign travel companies, who only resell tours, we create unique China experiences. Visit our China tour pages to see samples of how we do.
Or let us know your interests and requirements for a unique tailor-made China tour .