Hong Kong to be hub for tourists using China’s high-speed trainsAs China’s high-speed rail network slowly pieces itself together, travel agents down in Hong Kong are preparing to make full use of the system as they continue to help promote the country’s attractions to the world.

“The network has had its problems and there have been some concerns about safety but for individual travelers this is a great and cheap option that opens up places in China that were once almost impossible for tourists to get to,” Brian Au Yueng, who runs Window-Discovery Tours Ltd, told Relaxnews. “And we are hoping they will soon plan to start their journey from here in Hong Kong.”

China last year shut down the development of its high-speed rail network after a crash in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province in July claimed an estimated 40 lives but last week announced plans to step up construction in 2012.

Once completed, the US$200 billion (150 billion euro) network will cover an estimated 10,000 kilometers and will slash the traveling time between some of China’s major cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, while providing access to the attractions of smaller regional centers such as Hangzhou and Xiamen at the same time.

Hong Kong is set to come on line in 2015, when the city’s high-speed train link to the system via the southern metropolis of Guangzhou is completed

“We are hoping international travelers will come here for a few days and then they can use the high-speed train to explore China,” said Paul Tse, who represents the tourism industry in Hong Kong’s legislature. “There are many parts of China that used to be isolated but now these cities and the environment which surrounds them will be accessible to everyone.”

Hangzhou is one such city, famed among the locals for its lakes and ancient temples but up until recently not often found on the usual routes taken by international tourists. The new high-speed rail from Shanghai now gets visitors to the heart of the city in 40 rather than 80 minutes. Shangdong province, on the Beijing-Shanghai route, is another set to benefit and has been promoting stop-offs in places such as Qufu — birthplace of the great thinker Confucius — as well as the sacred Mount Taishan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Using this network will be a cheaper way of traveling through China and eventually even connecting to Europe,” said Yeung. “So European travelers can open this window and to use the train to travel to China and we hope to Hong Kong too.”

The high-speed rail system is being promoted as a cheaper and easier alternative to flying in China, an experience that is often soured by long delays. It currently costs around 755 yuan (90 euros) for the cheapest flight between Shanghai and Beijing, while the cheapest train ticket costs 550 yuan (66 euros).

“There’s no doubt the system — once it is all finished and they have fixed their safety concerns — will be very convenient and it will do away with a lot of the waiting and inconvenience people have experienced when trying to fly around China,” said Tse. “It will be much like the Eurostar in that it promises to be a quick and easy way to travel.”

Tick tock ….

Estimated travel time on high-speed train’s major routes (now or when completed/previous):

– Beijing to Shanghai (five hours/14 hours)
– Beijing to Guangzhou (eight/21)
– Xiamen to Shenzhen (three/11)
– Hong Kong to Beijing (10/24)