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Pack your bags and head for Tahiti, or grab your backpack and head for Tibet

OVERSEAS travel has never been cheaper, if you're Chinese. China's outbound tourism is still growing, despite the downturn, while overseas tourists are staying home. The yuan goes a long way overseas.

Maybe it's time to take the trip of your dreams. Tahiti anyone? A new route takes you directly from Shanghai. Outbound fares are low.

Traveling in China is cheaper, too. There are cut-rate packages and rock-bottom airfares.

Economy-minded travelers can cut corners.

Then, there's always backpacking, known as gathering luyou or "donkey friends" -- it's pronounced like the word for travel.

It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's a great way to save money. One woman accustomed to five-star travel went backpacking for the first time, in Europe. She pronounced it "fun."

In China, backpacking is already cheap -- airfares are the biggest part, and there's not much backpack fat to trim these days.

David Hua, 31, has been backpacking for 14 years and gets away at least once a month to nearby provinces over weekends and further away over longer national holidays.

"I definitely want to save money too, especially during the economic crisis," says Hua, a project manager at an advertising consultancy. "Saving money isn't only about cutting spending, but also increasing quality and value."

To save money, he goes out less in Shanghai and doesn't hang out as much in bars and restaurants.

"There's not much we can do to cut basic costs, but we can always increase cost performance -- get more out of the same trip to the same place," says Hua.

The global slowdown, hitting air travel and tourism hard, has made overseas travel cheaper for Chinese tourists. Prices only bounced slightly for the Chinese Lunar New Year, and dropped again just three days later.

While the number of foreign tourists arriving in China dropped by 6.8 percent last year, China outbound travel was strong. It remains to be seen, however, what will happen this year as the global economic crisis deepens.

"The financial crisis strongly affected the United States and Europe and spread to Japan, Australia and other areas. Basically, it's more expensive for people from those countries to come to China and consume," says Steve Wang from a local travel agency.

Meanwhile, costs are lower for Chinese travelers going abroad; accommodation and shopping are much cheaper due to the appreciation of the yuan.

Getting visas to European countries, the United States and Japan used to be another obstacle, says Wang, "but many nations have made it easier."

His company provides a two-week trip to 10 European countries for 13,000 yuan (US$1,904). Last May, the same trip was 5,000 yuan more and even more expensive before that, says Wang.

It's the same for other travel agencies. It's about 3,000-6,000 yuan cheaper to go to Europe now. Once luxury destinations for the privileged, the United States, Europe and even the Caribbean are now in the affordable range for ordinary Chinese.

The results of lower costs for Chinese showed up quickly. While the number of outbound travelers fell in most regions last year, that of China increased by 11.9 percent to 45 million, according to the National Tourism Administration.

The growth rate, however, was still slower than that in the past, reflecting the slowdown. The numbers of outbound Chinese grew 36.8 percent in 2002, over 40 percent for each of the next two years, and it was 18.6 percent in 2007.

But the two-digit rate of increase at this time is rather surprising. Obviously, many Chinese travelers seized the chance to visit their dream lands.

Fashion editor Gillian Jiang, 35, has already signed up for a six-day trip to Tahiti in Polynesia. Chinese travel agencies only started the route last September. The average price is around 27,000 yuan.

"It has been my dream to go there since my colleague showed me her honeymoon pictures there six years ago," says Jiang. "Tahiti was basically unknown in China back then and we didn't even know where to get a visa."

It cost her colleague 40,000 yuan just to get there and back. The visa cost another 8,000 yuan. Those prices didn't even include the hotels, so Jiang stayed away.

After hearing about the new route last November, Jiang decided to go. She and her husband will leave next month.

Jiang also promised her husband that she would rein in her shopping urges. She spent nearly 60,000 yuan on designer clothes, accessories and cosmetics in Australia for the National Day vacation in October, when the Australian dollar was low. The depreciated currency means many designer brands there were only 60 percent of their price in China.

"But it was still a waste, because I bought many unnecessary things. When going on a package tour with a fixed price, keeping myself from shopping too much is the only way to save money," concludes Jiang.

Backpacking craze

Financial consultant Joyce Zhang, 27, spent five weeks backpacking in 16 European countries with three experienced friends in January.

Zhang was the rookie. The cost for each was just around 2,000 euros (US$2,593) for everything -- airline tickets, accommodation, food, local transport, souvenirs and so on.

A first-time backpacker, Zhang hesitated and then decided to follow her friends "mainly to save money in the global downturn."

She saved a lot as Chinese travel agencies offer a typical two-week trip to Europe for about 13,000 yuan -- lower than that in the past. However, Zhang considers the roughing-it experience "fun but not everyone's cup of tea."

"It wasn't the comfortable trip in five-star hotels, luxurious restaurants and with licensed tour guides that I'm used to," she says. They slept on overnight trains a few times to save money and time.

"But I felt much closer to the local culture and community than I would have on a prepackaged tour to the standard destinations," she says.

Compared with her boyfriend, who took the typical two-week trip with a travel agency, Zhang didn't do much shopping but visited more places, both famous and out of the way.

She had a lot more stories to share at the dinner table, about her personal experiences.

She's glad she "sacrificed some comfort for thrilling stories."

But experienced backpacker Hua doesn't see a tradeoff between comfort and costs, saying "it's all about your definition of comfort."

"For me, the pleasure and achievement in setting up a tent in the mountains also counts for comfort," says Hua.

Hua is also head of Y3W4 Outdoor Sports Club (, a nonprofit club organizing group backpacking trips.

In addition to monthly weekend trips, he goes to more exotic places like Yunnan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region on longer national holidays. He hasn't yet made it to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region or Taiwan.

Hua started backpacking in college in 1996 and founded Y3W4 in 2004 with friends. He is used to making the arrangements, leading the way and taking care of the whole team.

He has shepherded more than 4,000 travelers in the past five years.

"Backpacking is not necessarily much cheaper. We can't beat the agencies since transport is the highest cost, more than half the trip," Hua says.

The financial advantages of backpacking are more obvious in long-distance tours in cities, says Hua.

With 14 years of backpacking experience, he has a trove of stories to tell, fascinating and some scary.

His little stove almost caught fire on a snow-covered mountain, but he also roasted his first whole sheep on the same mountain.

He and his team got lost on a little known 4,000-meter-high mountain and spent 24 hours climbing up and down. They also saw a beautiful sunrise.

He has led groups to the same watertown 10 times, each time with a different theme. He has done treasure hunts, barbecues, boating, retracing childhood games.

The aim of Y3W4 Outdoor Sport Club is to gather luyou from all around the city and from nearby provinces to travel together.

Luyou is a newly coined term for backpackers since its pronunciation is similar to the word for travel. Lu also carries another meaning for eco-awareness as green is pronounced the same in Chinese. Luyou are often environmentally conscious both in the city and on their trips.

Y3W4 charges no membership fees. Hua and his friends started the club when they realized that "it's cheaper and more fun with more people in the group."

With 20 or more people, they can save transport costs, play games to kill time on the road, bring more gear and eat a whole roast sheep, says Hua.

At first they considered making a little money, like many other outdoor clubs, but gave up because "it was too stressful and no fun when we had to worry about profit during the entire trip."

Now, all luyou of the club, mostly between 25 and 35 years old, go-Dutch for all trips and events. They make movie-like posters based on photos they took on their trips.

Zhejiang and Anhui provinces are among Hua's favorites because of their rich tourism resources, the proper distance for a weekend tour, the fresh air and smell of the earth and the endless discovery of new spots. Hua and his friends are masters of discovering hidden beauties.

Last spring they found a deserted village hidden deep in the mountains in Anhui. All villagers had been relocated to nearby towns when the government implemented a plan to lift them out of poverty and isolation.

Hua and his team bought vegetables, chickens and ducks from nearby townspeople and then headed for the mysterious village behind a bamboo forest.

They were all stunned by the beauty of nature and simplicity of the place. It took them two hours of walking, each person carrying a 20-kilogram pack.

Weekend trips usually cost 300 yuan for each person, about the same as the price from travel agencies.

"But we had so much fun," says Hua, "and made so many friends during our trips."

Traveling solo

1. Avoid the high seasons. The price differential could be as much as a few thousand yuan.

2. Pick a less expensive hotel. Many cheap hotels are very nice.

3. Take advantage of cheap airline tickets. Some Chinese airlines offer ridiculously cheap tickets, such as 99 yuan from Shanghai to Xiamen, Fujian Province. These tickets are very difficult to get, because supply is small and demand is high.

4. Make your plans and reserve transport early. It's usually a lot cheaper to book tickets in advance, the earlier the cheaper.

5. Skip tourist attractions with admission fees, especially when similar buildings can be seen elsewhere.

6. Don't shop too much, especially when using a guide -- guides on cheap packaged tours are supposed to take you to certain places to shop. It's cheaper and more meaningful to get special souvenirs and gifts.

7. Take the certified large air-con buses instead of those dodgy ones on the street. Those are not allowed on highways.

8. Avoid local one-day trips. They are often a waste of time and money, the cost-performance is lower than taking a cab.

9. Research your destination well in advance, including airline tickets, local guides, sights and accommodation.

10. Take along common medications in case of illness.

11. Buy different and inexpensive souvenirs, not the standard ones. It's not difficult to find the standard things in Shanghai, sometimes at lower prices.

12. Take local public transport instead of cabs, unless the destination is not on the route.

Alerts for backpackers

1. It's okay to make friends on your trip. Just remember to stay alert and be cautious, especially when you are alone. You don't want to wake up to find all your valuables gone.

2. Check your vehicle carefully before a driving trip, especially for long distances, remote places and mountains. Check radios, watches, and GPS if you are part of a vehicle team.

3. Emotional cheats. Be careful of people who just show up along the way and start talking about common interests like hiking, outdoor gear, nature and so on. They can pursue you and follow up after the trip through SMS and online chatting.

These guys often carry impressive photography equipment and are especially welcoming and helpful. Later they start asking for money or free assistance through your network. Then, of course, they disappear quickly.

4. Technological cheats. They sell fancy outdoor equipment at high prices. They often pretend to be experts in camping equipment, like knives, stoves, tents, etc.

5. Take Red Cross or other first-aid training.

6. Don't go to remote areas or dangerous places alone at night.

7. Respect local culture and communication.


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