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Tourists and business travellers who feel somewhat apprehensive about the difficulties of visiting China can get support from Beijing-based Touristlink service, which provides 24-hour multilingual telephone and internet-based information and support services, helping them to overcome problems of communication, local knowledge and cultural understanding.

Subscribers can call into a permanently-staffed manual call centre in Beijing, which has more than 100 operatives, and ask for advice or help on reservations and places to visit – or for assistance in translation. A traveller with a mobile phone can ask an operative to tell a taxi driver where they want to go and explain his response. The service currently operates in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Japanese and Korean. There are plans to add German, French, Dutch and other languages.

The call centre operatives have extensive local knowledge and attend weekly training and information gathering courses. In addition, there are office based staff and field operatives who constantly monitor the establishments already in the service directories and seek out new and exciting places to go.

Earlier this month Touristlink launched a service under which someone travelling to China can use the website to purchase a local SIM card and also rent a local mobile telephone,These can be delivered to their hotel for when they arrive. This will allowing them to make local calls at local rates– about 4 pence a minute.

Touristlink, which was launched last year, was initially marketed in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Taiwan and then in the US and Canada. As of this month it is also being launched in Europe via offices in London and The Hague and the website calltouristlink.com.

It is operated by Touristlink InternationalCo. Ltd in co-operation with China Telecom, Xinyuan Prime Technology and the People’s Insurance Company of China, Property Casualty Company Limited (PICC P&C), the largest non-life insurance company in China.

UK representative Daniel Levine claims that even the most seasoned traveller will benefit from the service – unless they already happen to speak Mandarin and Cantonese fluently.

“For most visitors, communication with Chinese people can be difficult,” he says. “Something as simple as ordering and directing a taxi, or even ordering dishes at a restaurant can be next to impossible. And even a phrase book may not help much, given the importance of pronunciation. Getting it wrong can be very frustrating and lead to delays. With Touristlink on hand, these kinds of trials and tribulations are removed at the touch of a button – the call button on the phone.”

Someone who wishes to use the service can subscribe over the internet for a one-off fee – which is about £30 in the UK. In return they receive by post a package containing items such as a long-distance phone card provided by Beijing Telecom, Touristlink 24/7 concierge membership card and emergency medical cash response (EMCR) insurance card, an often-used phone numbers card (carrying numbers for services such as the police, emergency medical services and embassies), a guidebook, a map and a book of discount vouchers. The pack also carries an ISBN number (90-77998-01-2) and thus can be ordered in the same way as a book. Eventually it will be stocked and sold through a number of retail outlets, such as travel agents and book shops.

The Touristlink insurance card, which is provided by PICC, provides emergency cover. If the member needs emergency medical treatment, for instance, they can call the PICC number and the company will send someone to them, wherever they are in China, with the necessary cash (up to a limit of RMB130,000).

This could be vital in China, as hospitals and many other services require cash payment in advance before they will give treatment. They do not yet have systems to accept foreign travel insurance for payment and they do not accept Western credit cards or travellers cheques.

PICC has a extensive nationwide network of more than 4,000 local branch offices. This network is used to provide a number of value-added services, such as nationwide all-round coverage and compensation and on-the-spot claims for out-of-town accidents.

Touristlink is thought to be in preliminary negotiations with a large European insurance company which would distribute the Touristlink package to European clients planning to visit China. Such a deal could ultimately allow the insurance company to sell its policies to outbound Chinese travellers coming to Europe.

Research conducted by Assist, an independent consultancy firm, suggests that about 24.8m Chinese people travelled abroad in 2004. It forecasts that this figure will rise to 49m in 2008 and 60m in 2010.

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