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Chapter 4 Select Destinations Asia


Sarah T. Borwein


China, with >1.3 billion people, is the world’s most populous country and the fourth largest geographically, behind Russia, Canada, and the United States. It shares a border with 14 other countries and has approximately 18,000 km of coastline. China is divided into 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, and 4 municipalities (Map 4-10). This large landmass is home to diverse topography, languages, and customs. The climate varies from tropical in the south to subarctic in the north, with wide variations between regions and seasons. Natural hazards include typhoons along the southern and eastern seaboards, dust storms in the north, floods, earthquakes, and landslides. Six of the 10 deadliest natural disasters in history occurred in China, including the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake, which is thought to have killed >800,000 people, making it the most lethal earthquake in history. Chinese superstition holds that natural disasters foretell the death of a ruler or the end of a dynasty, and indeed Mao Tse-tung died only 6 weeks after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, the death toll of which was also in the hundreds of thousands. More recently, devastating earthquakes have struck the western provinces of Sichuan in 2008 and Qinghai in 2010. Torrential rain, floods, and landslides plagued large areas of China in the summer of 2010, as well as drought and dust storms in the north.

China has one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations, dating back >5,000 years. It has the world’s longest continuously used written language system and is the source of many major inventions, including the “four great inventions of Ancient China”: paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing. Today, China is considerably more advanced (with the ability to put men in space, for example) and wealthier than many other developing countries, yet rural poverty and underdevelopment are still problems, particularly in the western part of the country.

Approximately 700 million Chinese live in rural areas. Urban areas are growing rapidly, however, and China is now home to many of the world’s largest megacities. Shanghai and Beijing each have close to 20 million inhabitants, and Chongqing, with a metropolitan population >30 million, is among the fastest-growing urban centers in the world. Rivers play a central role in China’s economy, history, and culture. The Yangtze River Basin, stretching 4,000 miles from the Tibetan plateau to the East China Sea near Shanghai, is home to >5% of the world’s population.

In 2012, >100 million tourists visited China. There has been extraordinary growth in tourism to China over the past decade, although numbers have leveled off slightly in the past 2 years. What is even more striking is the rapid growth in Chinese outbound tourism, from 29 million in 2004 to nearly 100 million in 2013. Chinese have also become the world’s biggest spenders of tourism dollars, spending >$100 billion overseas in 2012, ahead of both US and German tourists.

China’s long history and varied natural beauty can be traced in its 41 UNESCO World Heritage sites, from the imperial grandeur of the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven to the marvel of the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, and the spectacular mountainous sanctuaries of the west. Popular itineraries often include Beijing and the Great Wall, Xi’an, and the Yangtze River (see Box 4-01 for information specifically about Yangtze River cruises). Other tourist destinations include the following:

  • Shanghai and Hong Kong, with their futuristic architecture and East-meets-West mystique
  • Lijiang in the province of Yunnan, where many ethnic minorities are concentrated
  • Sichuan Province, home to China’s iconic symbol, the panda
  • Guilin, famous for its uniquely shaped limestone karst mountains that are often featured in Chinese paintings
  • Tibet, accessible now by the world’s highest railroad directly to Lhasa, with a maximum altitude of 16,640 ft (5,072 m)

Specialized itineraries are increasingly being offered, including hiking, mountain climbing, village tours, the Silk Road, and other more remote regions. Aside from tourism, increasing numbers of people travel to China to visit friends and relatives, to study, or to adopt children. These groups may be at particularly high risk of illness, because they underestimate their risks, are less likely to seek pre-travel advice, and stay in more local or rural accommodations. People traveling to China to adopt children often worry about the health of the child but neglect their own health.

Map 4-10. China destination map

Map 4-10. China destination map

PDF version (printable)

Box 4-01 Cruising down the Yangtze: what to consider

The Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world and one of the world’s busiest (and most polluted) waterways. Yangtze River cruises are popular with tourists, and there are several heath considerations for this trip:

  • At least 1 case of Japanese encephalitis has been documented in a tourist whose 3-week trip to rural and urban China included a Yangtze River cruise, and documented cases are likely to be an underestimate.
  • Malaria is not a substantial risk on this itinerary; only insect bite precautions are recommended.
  • Schistosomiasis—Schistosoma japonicum—exists in the Yangtze River basin. Swimming is ill-advised.
  • Motion sickness is rare on Yangtze cruises, since much of it takes place on a calm reservoir. However, susceptible travelers should carry antiemetic medication.
  • Excursions off the boat often involve steep climbs, many stairs, and long walking distances and may not be appropriate for physically infirm tourists.
  • Air pollution can be a problem on Yangtze River cruises and can cause eye and throat irritation, as well as respiratory problems in susceptible travelers. September and October are said to be the clearest months.
  • Most non-Chinese-speaking tourists will prefer a 4- or 5-star “luxury” cruise. First class on a Chinese tourist boat may not meet expectations for cleanliness, and English may not be spoken.
  • Food and water precautions apply, even on a luxury boat.


Although China is now the world’s second-largest economy, in per capita terms income is still below the world average, with wide disparity in wealth and development between rural and urban as well as east and west. Health risks vary accordingly.

Air Pollution

China’s rapid economic expansion has resulted in tremendous increases in emissions of air pollutants, particularly in the megacities. Although aggressive efforts are underway to control pollution, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China, and Beijing regularly tops the list. On peak pollution days, sometimes dubbed “airpocalypse” days by expatriate residents, the levels of particulate matter in the air can exceed 40 times the limit considered safe by the World Health Organization. The long-term health risks of this level of pollution are not the concern for most travelers, whose exposure will be relatively brief. However, they may suffer from irritation of the eyes and throat, and those with underlying cardiorespiratory illness, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or congestive heart failure, may find their condition exacerbated. In addition, exposure to high levels of air pollution significantly increases the risk of respiratory tract infections, including sinusitis, otitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to these effects.

Travelers should be sure to carry a good supply of any regular medications such as inhalers. All travelers should have a current influenza vaccine, and pneumococcal vaccine should be considered for anyone who is at higher risk from respiratory infection. Although surgical-style face masks have become increasingly fashionable in the big cities of China, especially Beijing and Shanghai, they provide no protection from air pollution and are not recommended. Properly fitted N95 masks can filter out particulates but not gaseous pollutants and can sometimes actually compound breathing problems, so are not routinely recommended.


Routine vaccinations should be up-to-date, including tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, influenza, and pneumococcal vaccines, as indicated. In addition, hepatitis A and B and typhoid vaccinations are usually recommended. Since the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region borders Pakistan, a polio-endemic country, adults traveling to this region who will be working in health care settings, refugee camps, or humanitarian aid settings should be vaccinated against polio, including a single lifetime booster dose of polio vaccine (IPV). Measles and rubella immunity is particularly important, although a massive vaccination campaign begun in September 2010 has decreased the number of reported measles cases in China, from 131,000 in 2008 to 10,000 in 2011. Nonetheless, a few travelers have made news headlines by triggering outbreaks in their home countries after returning from China. Although limited data exist on rubella in China, it was not part of the national immunization program until 2008, and incidence is believed to be high.

Rabies Vaccine

Rabies is a serious problem in China, as in much of Asia, with >3,000 human deaths per year reported in recent years. Mammal bites in any area of China, including urban areas, must be considered high risk for rabies. As international standard rabies immune globulin is generally unavailable, animal bites are often trip-enders, requiring evacuation to Hong Kong, Bangkok, or home for postexposure prophylaxis. Bites are surprisingly common in tourists. For example, dog bites were the most common dermatologic problem seen after China travel in a recent analysis of data from the GeoSentinel Surveillance Network. Rabies risk and prevention should be discussed in pre-travel consultations, and a strategy for dealing with a possible exposure should be developed. Long-term travelers and expatriates living in China should consider the preexposure vaccination series. Travel health insurance, including medical evacuation insurance, should be encouraged (see Chapter 2, Travel Insurance, Travel Health Insurance, & Medical Evacuation Insurance).

Japanese Encephalitis Vaccine

Japanese encephalitis (JE) occurs in all regions except Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Xizang (Tibet) (see Map 3-08 and Table 3-06). China has greatly reduced the incidence of JE through vaccination, and as of 2008, included JE in its expanded national immunization program; however, the disease remains a threat to unimmunized travelers. Although the JE season varies by region, most cases in local residents are reported from June through October. The risk of JE for most travelers to China is low but varies based on season, destination, duration, and activities. Risk is highest among travelers to rural areas during the transmission season. JE vaccine is recommended for travelers who plan to spend ≥1 month in endemic areas during June through October. It should be considered for shorter-term travelers if they plan to travel to rural areas and will have an increased risk for JE virus exposure based on their activities or itineraries, such as spending substantial time outdoors or staying in accommodations without air conditioning, screens, or bed nets. However, rare sporadic cases have occurred on an unpredictable basis in short-term travelers, including in periurban Beijing and Shanghai.


Malaria risk is low for travelers to China, with the exception of those visiting rural parts of southern Yunnan Province or Hainan Island. For these areas, chemoprophylaxis should be considered. Mefloquine resistance in southern Yunnan means that travelers should be given doxycycline or atovaquone-proguanil for travel in this area. For travelers to other regions, the risk is too low to warrant chemoprophylaxis. Rare cases occur in other rural parts of the country at <1,500 m (4,921 ft) from May through December, usually Plasmodium vivax infections, and only insect precautions are recommended.

Other Health Risks

Foodborne Illnesses

The risk for travelers’ diarrhea appears to be low in deluxe accommodations in China but moderate elsewhere. Usual food and water precautions should apply, and travelers should carry an antibiotic for self-treatment. Since highly quinolone-resistant Campylobacter is a problem in China, azithromycin may be a good choice. Tap water is not safe to drink even in major cities. Most hotels provide bottled or boiled water, and bottled water is easily available. In addition, there have been several well-publicized episodes of contamination of food with pesticides and other substances. Travelers should strictly avoid undercooked fish and shellfish and unpasteurized milk.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, are a growing problem in China, particularly along the booming eastern seaboard. Travel is associated with loosened inhibitions and increased casual sexual liaisons. Travelers should be aware of STD risks and use condoms if they have sex with someone whose HIV or STD status is unknown. Hepatitis B vaccination before travel should be considered.

Road Traffic Injuries

Traffic in China is often chaotic, and the rate of traffic crashes, including fatal ones, is among the highest in the world. Driving is on the right side of the road in mainland China but on the left in Hong Kong and Macau. In practice, many people drive down the middle of the road. Child safety seats, rear seat belts, and bicycle or motorcycle helmets are rarely seen and not widely available, even in taxis. Electronic bicycles (E-bikes) are popular and do not have to be registered. They often travel in pedestrian and bicycle lanes as well as with traffic. Because E-bikes are quiet (no engine noise), they can be hard to avoid. Motor vehicles and E-bikes often drive with no lights, making night travel dangerous. Traffic crashes, even minor ones, can create major traffic jams and sometimes turn into violent altercations, particularly when foreigners are involved. China has not signed the convention that created the International Driving Permit, and travelers require a Chinese license to drive in China. For all of these reasons, it is often simpler and safer to hire a local driver than to drive oneself. It is also advisable to avoid driving at night or when weather conditions are bad and not to assume that traffic rules or right-of-way will be respected.

Medical Care in China

Western-style medical facilities that meet international standards are available in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Some hospitals in other cities have “VIP wards” (gaogan bingfang), which may have English-speaking staff. The standard of care in such facilities is somewhat unpredictable, and cultural and regulatory differences can cause difficulties for travelers. In rural areas, only rudimentary medical care may be available. Hepatitis B transmission from poorly sterilized medical equipment remains a risk outside major centers.

Ambulances are not staffed with trained paramedics and often have little or no medical equipment. Therefore, injured travelers may need to take taxis or other immediately available vehicles to the nearest major hospital rather than waiting for ambulances to arrive.

Pharmacies often sell prescription medications over the counter. Such medications have sometimes been counterfeit, substandard, or even contaminated. Travelers should carry all their regular medications in sufficient quantity; if more or other medications are required, it is advisable to visit a reputable clinic or hospital.

Some travelers wish to try traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. Although most do so uneventfully, there is a risk of bloodborne and skin infections from acupuncture needles, and traditional medicine products may be contaminated with heavy metals or pharmaceutical agents. Acupressure may be preferable to acupuncture.

Travelers are strongly advised to purchase travel health and medical evacuation insurance before travel. Most hospitals will not directly accept foreign medical insurance, however, and patients will often be expected to pay a deposit before care to cover the expected cost of the treatment.


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