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BEIJING – Forget all the headlines about eye-watering pollution in Beijing and Shanghai — the Middle Kingdom's latest tourism slogan invites visitors to "Beautiful China."
Adorning buses and trains in cities such as London, the international marketing effort has been derided as particularly inept at a time when record-busting smog has drawn attention to the environmental and health costs of China's unfettered industrialization.
Like this year's typically clunky theme for visitors "China Ocean Tourism Year," the slogan highlights the tin ear of an industry that has ridden the coattails of China's rapid economic growth and increased global prominence but failed to keep up with international travel trends.
"Beauty can be looked at in many different ways, but when you have all the stories about the pollution, and the air pollution in particular, people are not going to buy the fact that China is 100 percent beautiful," said Alastair Morrison, a Beijing-based expert in tourism destination marketing and development.
China's tourism industry has grown at a fast pace since the country began free market-style economic reforms three decades ago. In 2011, travel and tourism generated $644 billion, or more than 9 percent of China's GDP, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, mostly propelled by its huge domestic market of 1.1 billion people.
China is also the world's third most visited country after France and the U.S. Despite that status, the numbers are less significant economically than domestic tourism. On top of that, the growth in foreign tourists has lagged world averages.
According to the World Tourism Organization, whose data is based on national sources, the average growth rate in overnight visitors worldwide was 2.8 percent from 2008 to 2012. The average growth rate in China was 2.1 percent.
And in the first nine months of this year, a period during which China's image as a destination has been tainted by worsening air pollution and unprecedented coverage of it, foreign overnight visitors dropped 7 percent to 15 million people.
"For a destination like China, which is a large country that many foreigners have not been to, and with the interest in China, you would expect above average growth rates," said Morrison. "You have to question what's going on."
Some point to unsophisticated marketing as an explanation.
Whereas tourism offices all over the world use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Chinese tourism authorities stick with what they know: trade shows and magazine advertising.
They are fond of using wordy theme years to promote China, having used one annually since its "Friendly Sightseeing Year" of 1992. The busy looking website of the national tourism body has been likened to a company newsletter.
"Most government tourism administrations in China prefer the traditional way of promotion to attract foreigners, such as holding promotions in targeted places overseas," said Wang Sheng, assistant general manager at D & J Global Communications. "But this practice has one major shortcoming in that they are still not close enough to the potential individual customer."
Some local tourism authorities recognize the problem and are leading the way in changing their strategy to attract foreign tourists, particularly those from Europe and North America.
The tourism authority in Shandong province, home of Confucius' birthplace and Tsingtao beer, has enlisted Google Inc. to act as a digital consultant to improve its advertising reach. Google helped them set up a channel on YouTube and increase their adverts' visibility alongside search results and on its partner websites. It also suggests advertising ideas and online designs.
Sun Shue, director of the international tourism marketing department at Shandong Tourism Administration, said they were working with Google to target primarily the European and American markets to make their inbound tourism market more balanced.
Nearly half of inbound tourists to Shandong on the eastern coast come from regional neighbors Japan and South Korea, with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia also providing many visitors, she said. European visitors are currently few in number and this structure is "not conducive to long-term stable growth," she said.
Hangzhou city's tourism office has a Facebook page and a website in several languages including English and German. The city's marketing and the image of Hangzhou's scenic West Lake has extended to dozens of buses and taxis in four European capitals and Tokyo and Seoul. This year, Hangzhou city has mainly targeted Britain, France, Germany and the United States and says it works with local PR companies to promote its brand.
Other problems in the industry are organizational.
Tour operators abroad complain that instead of cooperating with them to draw up cultural, historical and other themed itineraries, which is customary in the global industry, Chinese tourism authorities prefer to market directly to foreigners through travel magazines and other media.
Terry Dale, president and CEO of the United States Tour Operators Association, said it was a "cumbersome process" dealing with Chinese tourism authorities.
The national tourism body unveiled its new logo and tagline "Beautiful China" in February — a square blue logo with "Beautiful China" written in English and Chinese. It is competing with South Korea's use of "Gangnam Style" star Psy as the face of its tourism adverts abroad, and is expected to be discussed at this week's China International Travel Mart in south China, one of the country's most influential travel industry events. The China National Tourism Administration declined to be interviewed.
On a recent day, tourists on a hill overlooking the Forbidden City imperial palace in Beijing said they thought the slogan could have been more sophisticated.
"Well indeed China is beautiful, that's what we have seen for the last few days, yet I find it a little bit general because there have been a lot of beautiful places we have been to," said backpacker Maciek Pielok, 26, from Naleczow in Poland.
"I guess that you could even call it Epic China or the oldest country in the world, something like that."
AP researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.