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April 28, 2010

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Shanghai travelers leave their hearts in San Francisco

AS the centerpiece of the Bay Area in California, San Francisco is one of the United States' top travel destinations. Historically the city has been very popular for Chinese immigrants to settle and live. But as outward-bound Chinese tourism increases, this seaside city is a must-see in any tour of the West Coast.

San Francisco attracts visitors with its unique combination of hilly, seaside topography, Victorian architecture and liberal, diverse communities.

Major landmarks include the Golden Gate Bridge - the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was built in 1937; the Palace of Fine Arts - classical style architecture built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition; and Pier 39 where great seafood is served.

Tourism is currently one of the city's largest industries, and Chinese tourists are increasingly important.

China International Travel Service (CITS) is one of the largest travel services in Shanghai. According to Yu Weihua, CITS general manager, the number of Chinese tourists to the US has risen every year since visa applications were opened to travel agencies from the Chinese mainland in June 2008.

So far the agency has helped send nearly 5,000 Chinese tourists to the US.

Of the many package tours arranged by the agency, a tour of the West Coast is one of the most popular. San Francisco is a must.

"Through many years of people, business and official exchange between San Francisco and Shanghai, there's a high level of recognition of San Francisco landmarks among Chinese visitors," says Yu.

Chinese tourists particularly enjoy Lombard Street, known as the "Crookedest Street in the World," as in one stretch it runs one-way down a steep hill making eight hairpin turns.

"Seeing the Golden Gate Bridge is always exciting for our guests because there are so many stories connected with it. Lombard Street is popular because it's so unique to San Francisco, and they really enjoy eating great, fresh seafood at Pier 39," Yu adds.

Many Chinese travelers are affluent, well-traveled people in their 50s who have been to Europe or Japan already and want something different. Others may have family among the many overseas Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, or are prospective students who want to check the area out first.

Though visas take up to 50 days to be issued, both individual and group travelers are undeterred.

Shanghainese Angela Wu used to work for an Italian airlines company and loves to travel. In her previous job she visited Europe several times a year and stopped in almost all the countries.

But since visiting the US in 2006, she has fallen in love with its easygoing ways, ease of communication and natural scenery. Now she plans to visit every year. In 2008 she took a 20-day tour of the West Coast with her husband.

"I would recommend the whole coastal route leading to and from San Francisco," says Wu. "I'm more interested in small American towns that give a taste of local life. Along the Pacific coast route, you can stay at small home-style guest houses, eat fresh seafood and be close to nature."

In San Francisco she was particularly struck by the quiet, the well-preserved historic architecture, and the hilly terrain - which is totally different from Shanghai's flat but crowded landscape.

Her husband, a keen driver, even drove up and down the slopes of hairpin Lombard Street 10 times to challenge his driving skills.

"I still remember the sound of the trams on the streets, the sight of traditional horse-drawn carriages, and specialist bakeries that make bread into the most amazing animal shapes. San Francisco captures you with these details," she says.

"And because of its unique geography, you feel as if there's a surprise waiting around every corner of its winding, hilly streets. You never know when you will suddenly get another beautiful view of the sea and the city," she adds.


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