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Tales of a Terrible Review

Regent China Tours responds to TravelLady's review.

My name is Joy Katzen-Guthrie. Along with my work as a professional cantorial vocalist and recording artist/songwriter, I am also a leader of Jewish Heritage Tours to China and a speaker on the subject of Jewish history in China and Asia. I have been active in this particular work since early 2000, when I began a wonderful relationship with Regent China Tours. A detailed description of my work, my tours, and my experiences is to be found on my website at http://www.joyfulnoise.net/JoyChina1.html.

I feel deeply moved to respond to an earlier column from June 2001, which I received in early July that year, entitled "Tales of a Terrible Tour" written by Madelyn Miller regarding a tour she experienced with Regent China Tours. While I generally would respond only directly to the individual who wrote, I must share this letter with as many individuals as possible who read the earlier column, as the portrayal of Regent and the description of the tour provided by Miller are erroneous, misleading, and cruel.

Everyone receives complaints in any business ... it is to be expected, especially in the travel business working with the public. Complaints or feedback of any kind help us fine-tune our business and work toward pleasing people more. Thus, we look forward to receiving feedback forms from our travelers after a tour, whether the responses are positive or negative. Any one tour is not every human being's cup of tea. In fact, any group tour requires a certain amount of compromise on the part of every traveler. Some will prefer one sight over another. Some will prefer more shopping, others more history, others more entertainment, others more rest. Thus, when one travels with a group, one weighs the give and take within the process and chooses the tour because it accommodates most of one's individual needs.

Madelyn Miller, in fact, never had the courtesy to notify us and talk to us of her concerns, however. We had no idea of her feelings. She never shared any of them. She repeatedly over several months' time asked for a free tour. Regardless of Regent's inability to provide one to her, she chose to travel with us and, throughout the tour apparently claimed frequently that everything was fine. She didn't make her complaints known publicly until she returned and wrote a scathing review for the public. It should be noted that she mailed this review to her subscriber list and posted it on her website without notifying Regent Tours and without offering Regent Tours an opportunity to respond.

There is, frankly, no reputable travel magazine or website, or TV/radio/newspaper review program/column that would not notify someone being criticized to this degree and request that individual/organization's response. Not only did Miller not provide Regent Tours with that courtesy, she never printed one of our responses on her website or in her mailings after we found out about her column and responded fairly to her allegations.

The nature of a review of course is to provide a public critique. Regent serves the public and does not deserve special treatment that would not be afforded to anyone else. Any traveler who experiences a negative situation will share that information with any number of friends or acquaintances. We strive to please every customer, not just those who might provide a written review. Generally we receive positive reports of our tours, and those who have criticism assist us in knowing our work better. Certainly all of us have had bad experiences while traveling. No company, however, is so horrid as Madelyn claimed Regent is. No company could remain in business with such a track record. We would never see a customer if her observations were true! As in all businesses, there are improvements to be made and customer feedback is essential. We deeply believe that "The customer is always right." Madelyn was not speaking as a customer in this review, however, but as a critic. And forgive me for being blunt, but the critic is not always right! The only fair response I could give was to examine Miller's comments one by one and respond to the truth or fabrication of each.

The tour that Ms. Miller joined, the tours I have led, and so many other tours arranged by Regent have been wonderful experiences to so many people. Read the testimonials from my tours at http://www.joyfulnoise.net/JoyHeritageTours.html. They are honest, authentic responses from individuals who had a marvelous experience traveling through China with Regent Tours and who look forward to traveling with Regent again. Any one of these individuals can be reached for comment. In fact, besides this group, we have hundreds of other people we would invite you to contact regarding their experience with Regent. Visit the photographic retrospective of my April/May 2001 tour at http://www.joyfulnoise.net/JoyChina56.html Take a close look at those joyous faces, at the stirring emotions of those travelers, and at the delightful guides who assisted us throughout our tour. It is there that you will receive an accurate view of a Regent China Tours experience. The greatest damage that can come from a false report such as Miller's is that thousands of people may be denied the value that Regent delivers, a marvelous experience of China at a highly affordable price. This was the mission of Regent's founders a decade ago and continues to be the emphasis of their work today.

THE BACKGROUND OF THIS TOUR

In order to respond to Ms. Miller's allegations, I would like to provide an accurate background of this tour ... information which she left out of her description. The particular tour in which Ms. Miller participated was a private tour created specifically and expressly for the synagogue Temple Beth-El in Boca Raton, Florida. Temple Beth-El has the distinction of being one of the largest Jewish Congregations in the United States. Rabbi Merle Singer of Temple Beth-El responded to a mailing we sent to Florida synagogues regarding our newly-created Jewish Heritage Tours. We were invited to provide a bid and proposal for such a tour for his congregation.

Of numerous agencies that proposed a tour to China, Singer and the Temple Board chose Regent China Tours because our tours are not only outstanding, but the extensive research and the unique variety of Jewish activities in our tours are not available from any other agency leading tours to China. It was with pride that we created a tour specifically for Temple Beth-El that included travel to Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Suzhou, Guilin, and Hong Kong, as well as an outstanding Chinese national guide who is a scholar of Jewish history in China, visits with the Beijing and Shanghai Jewish communities, Sabbath dinner and services in Beijing, a tour of the Hongkou Ghetto of Shanghai --- in which some 25,000 Jewish refugees of Nazi Europe were sheltered during the Holocaust years, and the services of an outstanding Israeli guide through two synagogues in Shanghai and various Jewish buildings and the Hongkou area.

Thirty-seven individuals who belong to Temple Beth-El chose to participate in this tour, including Rabbi Singer and his wife. Madelyn Miller's mother, a member of the congregation, invited her to join this tour. In arrangement with the temple, Regent Tours booked the group in predominantly five-star hotels and created an itinerary that met all of the desires of the temple organization. I was directly involved in arranging the Jewish aspects of the tour, communicating with the Jewish contacts in China, and spending an evening with the group in Boca Raton to provide a background lecture regarding the Jews of China and the heritage and history they would experience. Regent Tours' President Chunyang Jiang of Tampa also traveled to Boca Raton twice to answer questions regarding the tour and prepare them for this opportunity.

It is important to note that Madelyn Miller had no input, nor was she involved in any way with regard to the preparation, planning, or creation of this tour. She had repeatedly requested a free tour from Regent China Tours, perhaps in return for a good review, but it is Regent's policy to treat every traveler equally and not to subsidize any one at the cost of others.

Ms. Miller's complaints about the tour began before she even signed up for the tour. Most agencies will not allow a change of schedule from a traveler even once, but again and again, she changed her departure dates and airline, and Regent China Tours accommodated her request each time without complaint. I know of no other agency that would allow a traveler to stay in other hotels or change schedules at whim, but Ms. Miller wrote to hotels in Beijing and Hong Kong to receive free rooms and meals from them. She had absolutely no interest in the synagogue, in its members, in its tour, or in its activities. She had absolutely no interest in the specific Jewish Heritage aspect of this tour. She chose to go, apparently, because she could not obtain a cheaper tour, or a free tour, elsewhere. She spent several days away from the group during the tour in order to shop at expensive stores that were not part of the tour and are not tourist locations. This created innumerable headaches for the guides who had to keep track of her joining the group for this event but not that event, or on this day but not that day, according to her daily whims.

Regent China Tours rarely advertises its services, but derives virtually all of its travelers to China on word of mouth alone. Simply stated, Regent's services are honest, thoughtful, and outstanding. There is no middle man or middle organization in the work of Regent. Because of Regent's focus on China, with offices in China, the company is able to offer an extraordinary value that our travelers truly appreciate.

Ms. Miller has given no specifics regarding this tour or its special nature anywhere in her description of "her" experiences. I note that these were "her" experiences because they were not the experiences of any other person in the group. Thus far, thirty-seven out of thirty-eight who traveled on this tour have had glowing reports of their experience in China and the work of Regent.

I cannot stress the importance of the fact that Madelyn Miller was not among the group that created this tour. It is one thing to join a group of 37 other people from around the country, all of whom do not know one another, and create an extended family for two or three weeks while traveling together. It is another thing entirely to join a group of 37 other people who know one another well and attend religious services together on a regular basis, and be the only one in the group that does not know the other members or participate in their activities nor have any interest in them or their organization. Think about it. Common sense tells a person that s/he would feel extremely uncomfortable in such an arrangement. Our experience in the travel business shows that when a person from outside a group chooses to travel with a group of affiliated individuals, it proves to be less rewarding than when friends travel together or when individuals who do not know one another come together on a common level to create new friendships through traveling.

AN EXAMINATION OF THE CRITICISM

Let us examine Miller's criticisms one by one to provide an honest response and give as fair measure as possible to her claims.

"Maybe the problem with my Regent Tour was that they only had one guide, Ying (sic) for forty people. And his English could have been better. His best credential seemed to be that he was the brother of the tour companyowner. (So who are you supposed to complain to if there is a problem?) Ying seemed overwhelmed with handling 40 senior citizens. He did not seem sympathetic to their need for bathroom breaks or a rest after long walks in the heat. Each day he started the tour with a "prayer" for serenity and suggested you accept what you get in life. To me it seemed like a statement that no complaints would be tolerated, you needed to put up and shut up."

I was baffled when I read this description of Regent's guide and Director of the Beijing office, Shuo Yin, who is universally loved and lauded by travelers on our tours. Yin is virtually a legend in Regent history, an individual of whom we could probably compile a book of loving remarks from our travelers. Of all the individuals Miller could have criticized, her criticism of Yin shows the bias from which she speaks.

Yin's Prayer for Serenity opens the daily tours on Regent. It is not only a beautiful statement, it has been requested each day by members of every tour group I've experienced in China and is spoken of with reverence from many of our travelers. This is the full "prayer:"

Let all things be healthy
Let all things be peaceful
Be sure to count your blessings at least once a day
Forgive those who hurt you and those who have offended you
But first forgive yourself for what you have done
And what you have failed to do.
That which is done there's no need to speak of
That which is past there's no need to blame.
Have self-control, self-knowledge, self-respect
The courage to dare
Be tranquil, the light of intelligence will shine.
Strive to make a spot where you stand beautiful
Then the beauty and harmony will follow you in all your ways and
Through all your days
On this splendid land of China
Amen.

This statement has been reprinted in church bulletins, copied on travelers' websites, and used in a variety of spiritual services created by Regent travelers. Perhaps whatever Ms. Miller saw in this simple prayer may be a projection of her own critical nature and personality. If she can criticize a simple, heartfelt prayer such as this, as well as one of the most popular and praised individuals in China's tour industry, it is not difficult to understand her comments overall.

Not only does Yin regularly lead Regent's groups of as many as 100 people, he also leads groups from IBM and Motorola on a continuous basis and is one of the most sought after guides in China. He has endless energy and is a constant source of stories and information. He is a fluent and outstanding speaker in English. (I might mention that Miller could use a little assistance in this department herself. Her spelling of both English and Chinese throughout her review is fraught with errors.) He observes every person in every group and attends to each one individually. He is funny, charming, and personable. Yin, along with all of the other Regent guides, has led a fascinating life in China. If you ask him about himself, he will share deeply touching stories of his life and his experiences. Miller's statement that Yin was "overwhelmed" with 38 people is at best laughable.

Her comment that there was only one guide for this tour is also strikingly inaccurate. Regent's Beijing guide Millie Hou joined the tour to the Great Wall while Miller chose to be absent. Millie oversaw airline transfers and special daily requirements in meals (This group required that no pork or shellfish be served.), Sabbath services, and hotel needs. She was on hand at the hotel daily to assist travelers with any of their concerns. This tour further included the participation of a Chinese Judaic scholar as national guide throughout, as well as local guides in Xi'an, Guilin, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hong Kong, in addition to an Israeli guide in Shanghai throughout the Jewish areas of the tour. Additionally, the group had its own bus and driver in every city as well as luggage handlers at every airport and hotel. Thus, this group had eight guides in addition to six drivers and a luggage assistance staff of two to three individuals at each hotel!

"The food at the Western-style hotels where I had contacts was wonderful. The Chinese meals on the tour were so bad I lost more weight than I would at a spa (they should consider that as a marketing tool)."

One's preferences regarding food are personal and vary from individual to individual. You have just read Miller's comments. Here are just a few comments about the same food from other Regent Tour travelers ...

"Excellent! " ~Jacquelene Rueckert

"It was all delicious!" ~Suzie Golden

"Superb, all the restaurant choices were excellent," ~Patrick Neas

"Excellent restaurant for breakfast each morning. Unusual and tasty selections at all restaurants. The wait staff have all been extremely polite and thoughtful." ~Sally Wunsch

"Terrific! - Enjoyed the many choices .." ~Marcy Harris

"Interesting, tasty, plentiful. Having water available ALWAYS was wonderful. * * * * * FIVE STARS . " ~Anne & Michael Deitz

Every one of the restaurants used by Regent China Tours is among the highest rated restaurants in each city, providing some 15 to 20 dishes from which to choose at each meal. It should be noted that without any food included in this tour, its price would still be considerably less than most similar tours from other agencies. If individuals desire to experience other food during their travel, we encourage them to enjoy an occasional meal on their own at other locations.

In China, restaurants must be selected with care. Not all restaurants handle a tourist clientele and may serve food and water that will make the tourist ill. The government will not approve any restaurant that is unsafe for tourists. While there is nothing "wrong" with this food, its preparation is less than sterile and its bacteria content can cause serious health problems for the traveler. Regent Tours chooses only the safest and most well-liked restaurants in each city, constantly re-evaluating these restaurants based on tourist comments, and selecting the most popular ones.

"On the first day, after leaving the bus to go to Tiennamen (sic) Square, we walked several blocks before he asked if anyone wanted to go to a bathroom. Many people did, so he directed them back to a bathroom where they were charged three dollars US for the privilege. A few tour participants were smart enough to "negotiate" down to a dollar for the potty privilege. But wouldn't it have been gracious of the tour leader to walk them back and negotiate a group price?"

Ms. Miller claims Yin led the group to a bathroom at Tian'anmen Square that charged $3 U.S. per person for its use. In my life, I have never heard of a bathroom in China charging three U.S. dollars for its use. Rarely, some bathrooms require a payment ... it amounts to 50 cents or less. Some bathrooms have an attendant on hand who cleans the bathroom and accepts donations. Payment is not required, but it is customary to leave two yuan -- 25 cents.

Regent's guides will always lead the group to the best bathrooms in the area and will also remind throughout the tour where the best public bathrooms are located so people can use the better facilities if possible. There are no businesses of any kind in China that request U.S. dollars in payment. Officially, tourists are to exchange U.S. dollars for Chinese RMB to purchase Chinese goods. One will never under any circumstances find any shop, vendor, or facility requiring payment in U.S. dollars. Miller's description of this toilet facility sounded to me like a tourist trap.

In fact, a check with others on this tour as well as with Yin himself revealed that Yin daily advised the travelers how long it would be from one toilet to the next. (This is necessary in China. Toilet facilities in some areas are rare or unavailable.) To prevent travelers in this group from possible heat stroke because of a heat wave in Beijing, Yin announced he would move them quickly through Tian'anmen Square, which is a large open area with little shade. Some chose to walk back 100 feet to the only bathroom on the square while Yin located a shady location off the square for the others. Yin announced that this was a fee toilet charging 30 cents. The first person, however, returned to say he paid three U.S. dollars. Yin explained the mistake and volunteered to go back with him to receive a return of the money. This person said it was not important. Other members of the group correctly paid 30 cents and there never was an issue of negotiating a "group rate."

"The Regent tour used supposedly used 5 star hotels yet you could not get more than one clean towel a day without begging the hotel. At the King Wing Hot Spring Hotel in Beijing it took four calls to housekeeping and the manager to get a second clean towel for a second shower after a hot day of touring. "Tomorrow" they said. And "you have towels." It was true. We had towels. But they were wet and dirty."

Beijing's King Wing Hot Springs Hotel (http://www.orientaltravel.com.hk/hotel/city/res_King_Wing_Hot_Spring_Hotel_Beijing.htm) has one of the finest reputations in the city, used extensively by hundreds of tour groups worldwide. I do not know how many towels Miller uses daily. It should be noted that not one other person out of 38 on this tour commented any displeasure with any of the hotel's services. Every hotel room in fine hotels in China has a myriad of large and small bath towels and washclothes for daily use. As in any fine hotel, the towels are changed daily. Some hotels change the towels twice daily, morning and evening. This kind of complaint has nothing to do with Regent tours and sounds, as in all the other complaints, to be completely rooted in unreality.

"All the meals were supposedly included the Regent Tours China tour. Yet, after the orientation, suddenly dinners in Hong Kong were not included."

All meals in Regent tours are included except Hong Kong. On the brochure for this tour, one dinner was clearly written as "not included." In the case of this tour, there appeared to be a miscommunication, and the members of the group did not realize that Hong Kong meals were not paid for. What Ms. Miller does not say is that, upon hearing that the group was unaware that the meals in Hong Kong were not included, Regent immediately added them to the schedule without charge. In other words, there was a miscommunication between the agency and the travelers in which travelers did not notice the clearly-marked reference to a meal not being included, but the agency immediately rectified the situation at no expense to the travelers.

"One night we begged him to change the schedule so we would be able to climb the Great Wall in the morning when it was cooler. He reassured our entire table of 8 that he would do so. Yet when we got back on the bus, he had reverted to "his" original schedule."

Miller's profession is to critique tours, not lead them.

The request to visit the Great Wall in the morning was inappropriate. The tours of any agency are laid out by tour professionals who have led these tours over many years for the benefit of all travelers. A tour company takes into account the time, the route, and all of the logistics of travel in order to reach various sights within a few days. One does not arbitrarily change the schedule of a group without inviting serious problems. An excellent example of this would be the Great Wall, which is a nearly two-hour drive outside Beijing and is a rigorous experience that would have travelers exhausted by mid-day if they went in the morning as opposed to the afternoon. In fact, if the group had gone to the Wall first as Miller desired, the drive would have placed them there precisely between 11:00 to 11:30 a.m. -- the hottest time of day, not only the most uncomfortable time to climb the Great Wall, but a time that could lead to the serious possibility of heat stroke. It again should be noted that a heat wave was occurring in Beijing at the time this group was visiting. Normal summer temperatures of approximately 95 to 100 degrees require care in touring open unshaded and physically demanding areas such as the Great Wall. The peak temperature in Beijing that week averaged 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Can you imagine climbing the Great Wall at noon in 120 degrees?

The schedule to the Great Wall is precise. On the way, the bus passes a cloisonné factory for an opportunity to see cloisonné artisans at work building, painting, and firing their crafts. Following that, the bus drives another half hour to the Ming Tombs, where the group walks along country roads in remote areas with some light climbing. Then the group rests for lunch and a short visit to a Friendship Store for shopping or browsing, followed by another 45 minute drive to the Great Wall. The Great Wall is an exhilarating, but physically demanding experience. One does not want to be rushed in visiting this site. To suggest beginning the day with this experience, then rushing off to go walking or shopping elsewhere, suggests a lack of knowledge of the physical logistics. After visiting the Great Wall, it is time for the group to wind down and return to the hotel and to dinner. Thus, it is the last place the group visits that day, after which they welcome the ride back to the city and a delicious meal.

In fact, it was Miller and only Miller who wanted to go to the Wall in the morning. Once on the bus, Yin explained the reasons for the group to see the Wall in the afternoon and everyone on the bus with the exception of Miller agreed. The bus was parked as close as possible to the Wall entrance (There is no way to park closer than the vendor and entrance area will allow.) and remained on with air conditioning running during the entire afternoon.

It did not matter for Ms. Miller, however ... she amazingly did not even join the Great Wall tour! The reason she insisted the group see the Great Wall first was because she assumed she could walk on it for a few minutes and then rush off to shop!! Her request indicated no understanding of the location of the Great Wall nor the isolated country roads that surround it for a nearly two-hour drive. The only way she could spend the day as she wanted, “shopping ˜ was to stay behind. That is, in fact, precisely what she did. She never bothered to see the Great Wall. It was only a distraction in her visit to China.

"Each day, we hoped to return to the hotel to shower and relax before dinner. Yet he always decided to go directly on to dinner. Everyone was hot, tired, and sweaty. Maybe this sounds like too democratic a suggestion, but maybe we could have voted to see if the group would rather return to the hotel to rest before dinner or not."

Beijing is a city of tremendous scope. Traffic is heavy, and going from one sight to the next without returning to the hotel saves a great deal of time. Each day the group was advised of the schedule and had an opportunity to return to the hotel first or have more time sightseeing by going directly to dinner. On the day of touring the Summer Palace, the group chose to go directly to dinner and a show. On the day the group visited the Forbidden City, the group chose to return to the hotel for a rest before dinner.

In fact, a group tour is not a "democracy." A group tour in a foreign city is led by licensed travel professionals who understand the logistics of their city and speak its language and schedule the tour according to the city's traffic, tourist locations, and physical needs of the group members. Miller was unaware of any of these concerns and was not in a position to determine the "democratic" decision for the group --- which would have been her totalitarian one.

The schedule on this tour, because it featured Jewish activities and sights in addition to the Chinese sights, was even more active than standard tours. If one visits my website (http://www.joyfulnoise.net) to see FAQ's about the Jewish Heritage Tours, one will read clearly that the group will often be gone from 8:30 a.m. until 7 or 8 at night. Tours include sights, shows, cruises, and religious services and activities. Those who desire to may call a taxi and, for a fee of about one dollar or less, return to the hotel instead of remaining with the group. Nobody is a prisoner on a Regent China Tour.

"And one day we had a "picnic" at the Summer Palace in Beijing. Nice idea, great concept. But the picnic for 40 included one loaf of unsliced bread, crackers, bananas, lychee fruit, 12 cookies, and some fish sausage which almost no one except the guide ate. He claimed he had also bought yoghurt (sic) and chicken sausages, but he left them in his car. (Perhaps if he had an assistant, they could have retrieved them or bought more)"

The food for this impromptu picnic was purchased by Regent's guide Millie. Everyone indicated their enjoyment of the fun of eating outdoors and praised the food, including Ms. Miller herself. Nobody complained at the time or, with the exception of Ms. Miller, since.

"Actually, the most interesting thing I discovered on this trip was what it must be like to live in a Communist country where all information is controlled by a central source. Our guide would tell us plans were changed because the government wanted to use a certain hall and we had to come another day. Why did the government only give him 24 hours notice? Does this happen to other tourists? And how could we check?"

It is statements like this that really get my goat. Ms. Miller knows nothing of life in China and speaks with self-righteous arrogance. When one travels anywhere in the world, including the United States, one faces daily schedule changes and unexpected experiences. In fact, it is not unusual for flights to be canceled suddenly, schedules to be moved, and weather or other circumstances to change daily plans. The entire infrastructure of Beijing was then and continues to be changing daily because of extensive construction to prepare for the 2008 Olympics. Numerous streets and buildings have been completely closed at a moment's notice.

"Ying did excel at finding what I call "guide stores," overpriced outlets that obviously paid him a commission. He took us to these "factories" first thing in the morning and never rushed us. In fact, our very first stop, the very first morning was to a pearl factory where my eager group spent several thousand dollars. He must have been thrilled, as he added in some more factories to our schedule."

Every agency that provides tours in China guides the tour members to shops and factories where many of the local crafts are intricately produced. As in the case of the Cloisonné Factory, these businesses provide an opportunity to see the artisans at work sculpting, painting, embroidering, and firing their crafts, where one can marvel at the uniqueness and brilliance of these objects. Did Miller happen to notice the 20 to 30 other tour buses in the parking lot of the Pearl Factory during the time she was there? Or at every other one of the "overpriced outlets" she mentions? Those other buses were also taking tourists -- Germans, English, Swedes, Americans, Asians, French --- into the same store to see a display of the oysters being opened and to have an opportunity to purchase some of the finest pearls in China. Factory shops offer authentic items with a 100% guarantee and are designated by the Chinese government for tourists. They are equipped with excellent bathroom facilities and offer goods that cannot be found on the street. Every agency conducting tours to China and every tourguide within China escorts travelers to these shops. Tourists are the first to request to be taken to these shops. They want to purchase cloisonné, jade, silk embroidery and finely crafted furniture -- none of which are available from street vendors.

"When a few tour members began to buy things from vendors, Ying gave a stern lecture on the street vendors and how they cheat you. He warned us against buying from them. I could understand his concern. The vendor prices were unbelievably cheap, as cheap as everyone had hoped and dreamed they would be. One tour member bought 30 silk ties for $5. I don't mean $5 each, that was the total for all 30."

To suggest that any guides keep tourists from buying from vendors is absurd. At every location the group visits, vendors line the streets and sell to tourists. Inexpensive souvenirs may be purchased everywhere as gifts to take to friends or as a memento. Every tourist comes home with the sound of "One dollah! Five dollah!! Two for one dollah! Ten for five dollah!!" ringing in his/her ears. It is part of the charm -˜ and yes, annoyance ˜ of traveling in China as well as many other countries.

For inauthentic items that a vendor claims to be jade, pearls, or silk, however, the vendor charges 50 times the value of the product and the tourist gains an item that is worthless. Five dollars will purchase thirty 100% polyester ties imported from Korea and labeled as silk. One could easily find eighty 100% polyester ties in Beijing for five dollars. Even a child in China knows the value of a 100% silk tie, for which most less expensive stores charge $5 to $10 each, and for which brand name stores charge from $25 to $55.

Factories or other shops are never "added to the schedule." The schedule is created before the group arrives and adhered to closely with the exception of the group's vote to add or delete something on occasion. It is true that Regent guides warn their groups that the items they purchase from vendors are not authentic other than as inexpensive souvenirs, with the exception of books and postcards (which also come in varying qualities from vendors).

"At the airport, as we left Beijing, Ying passed out a map to each group member. Why I wondered had he waited until we left?"

Ms. Miller wonders constantly, yet never seeks facts. Free city maps are available from the front desk at every hotel in every city as they are in every airport. At the airport as the group left the city, Yin saw some maps on the ground that fell from a shelf. He picked them up to place them back on the shelf when someone in the group asked for one, so he distributed them to those who wanted them, then put the remainder on the shelf. From this, Miller "wondered why he waited until we left" to distribute maps. I would recommend she wonder why she doesn't pay attention to what is really happening around her.

"His parting words were that transfers would be taken care of in each city. But that did not happen ..."

Yin guided the group to obtain boarding cards, then paid airport taxes for them, hugged and shook hands with the members of the group and waited outside while the group went through security. Two hours later, the agent in Xi'an informed him the group was in safe hands. Miller implies that Yin was the only guide throughout the tour and didn't oversee their needs. Yin was the Beijing guide only. From Beijing, they and their national guide joined local guides and drivers in Xi'an, Shanghai, Suzhou, Guilin, and Hong Kong. Every one of these guides took the group members to the airport, saw them off, and saw that they were safely guided to and from each plane and to and from each bus. This is a given. No group is capable of traveling in China without a guide in every city. It is a complex country with extreme language barriers for foreigners. No group in China can be left standing alone in a Chinese airport, wringing their hands, wondering what to do with themselves. Despite this image portrayed by Miller, it is not possible. Every agency operating in China is government-regulated. NO agency would be licensed in China after leaving foreign travelers stranded in airports.

"Our transfers involved forty senior citizens, some with canes, bad backs and knee replacements claiming their luggage and then lugging it downstairs, across airports and then on a few blocks to the bus in the parking lot. Why couldn't the bus at least come to us? Or why didn't a team of baggage handlers handle the baggage as promised. We noticed the baggage of other tour groups pulled and neatly gathered for transport to their hotels."

This group consisted of 38 travelers, over half of whom were not senior citizens, including Ms. Miller herself. Airports worldwide have their own regulations regarding parking and luggage handling. Each airport in China has a unique arrangement. Regent's national guide Liang Ping (kfcits@public.kfptt.ha.cn), a well-known Judaic scholar in China, confirmed that, regardless of those with canes, bad backs and knee replacements who needed help most, Madelyn Miller -- a healthy and a comparatively young woman -- threw three of her four heavy carry-ons into his hands, preventing him from carrying items for other passengers. An additional description of what Miller did with her luggage to nearly cause serious injury to the group is provided below in a response from Rabbi Merle Singer.

"And once we got to our hotels there were often long waits for them to unpack the bus and deliver the bags to the rooms. We once waited over six hours, and had another dinner in sweaty, dirty clothes."

Ms. Miller's description of the "long waits" is equivalent to her description of "several blocks" that "many people" walked to get to a toilet on Tian'anmen Square, where "they were charged three dollars US for the privilege."

Regent goes out of its way to expedite delivery of luggage to rooms. Regent pays luggage handlers extra to take the bags directly from the airport to the bus, and from the bus to each room -- tour members need not provide any tips. In most cases, luggage arrives at the hotel ahead of the group, as every other member of this tour would confirm.

"The service and amenities actually seemed to decrease as the trip progressed. In the brochures it said that all beverages (water, beer and soft drinks) were included. But by our second city, they began charging if you had more than one glass of water. We were also promised water on all the buses but as we left Shanghi (sic) they were out of water, and when we arrived in Guilon (sic) they still had not provided water. A total of seven hours without water available. Tough for people who already had upset stomachs and were a little dehydrated."

Regent China Tours is the only travel agency in China -- and the only travel agency I know of anywhere -- that provides unlimited free bottled waters on the bus and free drinks during their meals. This means that during the summer, cases and cases of bottled water are consumed by the travelers at no cost to them. Because no other tour agency in China covers the cost of its travelers' beverages, one of the restaurants was not used to Regent's arrangement and mistakenly charged the group members for beverages, assuming the arrangement was the same as every other agency. When the guide discovered this error, every traveler who had paid extra for a beverage received a refund. In Guilin, water was picked up immediately.

Seven hours without water???!!! In seven hours, Regent tour members have two meals and visit three or four sites, all of which sell bottled water, soft drinks, popsicles and snacks for next to nothing. In fact, a bottle of water in China averages one to two yuan -- that's 12 to 25 cents. In the airport at Shanghai, Ms. Miller could have purchased a bottle of water for twenty-five cents. On the plane, the flight attendants walk up and down the aisle continuously providing drinks and snacks. The beverage tray will go by three or four times on any given flight. At the airports in Shanghai and Guilin, excellent bathrooms and water fountains are available. The ride to Guilin from the airport is approximately 40 minutes, at which time the group is either at the next sight or taken directly to the hotel.

"One day, six out of eight people at my lunch table had brought food from breakfast wrapped in napkins to lunch. The hotels started charging extra for breakfast boxes so people could take food with them. Even though people claimed to be hungry, they did not eat much of the food."

You read the comments above from other tour members regarding the same food. Isn't it odd that all ridiculous things appeared to happen only to or around Madelyn Miller on this tour? And now, the napkin caper.

It is understandable if some travelers prefer western food to Chinese. They might have chosen to take food from the profuse breakfast buffet at every hotel. A buffet breakfast included with the cost of a room does not mean free carry-away, however. Do you know of any hotel or restaurant anywhere in the U.S., Europe, or any other part of the world, that allows its diners to walk out with doggie bags from the buffet?

Even the cheapest all-you-can-eat buffets in America do not allow diners to leave with food in hand. Not so much as a brownie or an apple. Isn't it odd that Miller would see six people choosing not to eat from an outstanding breakfast buffet at the breakfast, but instead wrapping up food in napkins to take out of the restaurant with them and carrying wrapped up cold eggs for lunch instead of eating delicious Chinese food from a selection of 15 to 20 items on a table at lunch? While I am not the most experienced guide or tourist, I have yet to see any member of my tours or any individuals in any tour groups in which I have participated sneak food out of a hotel restaurant because they were going hungry and had no choices available elsewhere.

"Later that day, a few of the exhausted older people decided not to venture into a cave that involved lots of steps and slippery footing. They locked five of them in the van and turned off the air conditioning. No bathroom, no air, and no way to get the driver's attention. Imagine if one of them was overcome by heat stroke."

An utter falsehood. Both the national and local guides in Guilin, as well as the driver and other tour members, confirmed that the driver never moved more than two feet away from the bus, and the bus air conditioning was running without stop. Regent buses are left on while the drivers stand by the bus to see that items left on the bus are safe and to open the door for any group members who wish to get on the bus. I have walked back to buses in every city countless times to get film, wetnaps, or water from the bus, to check on other group members, or to rest on the bus myself. The bus has never been left unattended or off.

"When we finally reached Hong Kong at 2 AM, we discovered our 5 star hotel was across from a sex shop."

Of all Miller's ludicrous remarks, this one was the most bizarre.

The Regal Kowloon Hotel (http://www.regalkowloon.com/mmm/regalkl/en_US_main.html) is one of Hong Kong's finest, located on Hong Kong's most famous central avenue, Nathan Street on the Kowloon side. World-famous brand-name shops are located up and down this street, and the hotel itself is one of the world's leading Regal chain hotels. Absolutely nobody involved with Regent or any one of the travelers on the group knows what "sex shop" Miller is talking about!!

There is one thing upon which the members of this group universally agreed, however. The "Travel Lady" was a "Trouble Lady." She was a constant source of griping and aggravation for one traveler after another.

Miller writes, "Your impressions of a country are very much influenced by your tour leader." I cannot agree more. I would suggest further, that one's impressions of a country are influenced even more by the traveler at one's side. Again and again I have seen members of a group avoid the ones who complain incessantly, finding them immensely unpleasant. What would have been pleasurable memories have turned into recollections of frustration at annoyance at travelers who simply cannot be pleased no matter what people do for them. Incessant complainers make life exceedingly uncomfortable for all in the group and bring down the energy of everyone as others become influenced by their behavior and attitude. It appears to be the utmost desire of such individuals that others not enjoy themselves so they can have a good time complaining.

In Ms. Miller's "review", however, the most telling details were in what she did NOT say. She did not comment on the amazing sights that the group saw, on the wonderful camaraderie of the members of the tour, on the fun and excitement they enjoyed together. She had nothing to say of every guide but Yin, the contribution of the Chinese Judaic scholar and the Israeli tour leader, the visits to the Hongkou Ghetto, synagogues and Jewish sites that no other tour groups include in their itineraries. She never spoke of the wonderful experiences the group enjoyed with the Jewish communities in Beijing and Shanghai or of the joy of meeting the Chinese people who are so wonderfully warm and welcoming. She never remarked upon learning of their culture, experiencing their history, the privilege of experiencing the beauty of their environment and their historical sights. She never mentioned the loving attention paid by the restaurant and hotel clientele, the beautiful and spacious rooms, the brand-new bus, the attention given by every Regent staff member to everyone's slightest need.

Everybody knows that no tour is all bad. Even when things go wrong, most things go right. There is no tour company, no country, no travel experience in which there are no redeeming features. No, Miller does not mention these things because even she could not think of a way to complain about them. She has fabricated a story about the worst tour that ever was, but the reader easily sees through her remarks. Nothing she says rings true. All of us know from our own travel adventures that the type of situation she describes could not possibly exist. If Regent China Tours conducted business this way, the company would not remain in business even a few months. The travel industry is largely advertised through word of mouth. No company serving the public can be successful while continuously thumbing its nose at the public's needs.

In fact, Regent China Tours is one of the world's fastest-growing travel operators. While Madelyn Miller's words will be completely forgotten not long from now, Regent will continue to serve thousands of people through their tours. Individuals such as myself, who have been offered opportunities to work with other agencies, will continue to work with Regent wherever they lead tours, because their care and concern in making a tour perfect for the traveler are second to none.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Let me share with you a statement made by internationally acclaimed travel photographer Bill Bachman, a Regent China Tours guide:

"I love the beauty and mystery of China. I shoot travel and advertising assignments all over the world -- but, it is equally exciting for me to share this wonderful travel experience with a small group. Regent is THE top company arranging tours in and around China. This will be my second expedition as group leader with them, and can not speak highly enough about their organization! You will find, as I pleasantly did, that Regent China does EVERYTHING first-class. All the hotels, food, group excursions, guides, transfers, are really first-class.... all for a remarkably low price. I am thrilled to have my name associated with Regent China Tours." ~ Bill Bachmann

Bill's feelings about Regent China Tours echo my own. As I write this, I am looking at a quote that is on my calendar for today:

"Life is never what we think it is going to be -- it's only what we make of it."

So it is when we travel. We adapt ourselves to many changes and learn to go with the flow of a different world, even if only for a few weeks. Our experiences are indeed what we make of them. Thirty-eight people took the same tour, but one of them experienced it in a completely different manner than the other thirty-seven, based upon what she chose to see. The travesty here is not that Madelyn Miller wrote an erroneous review. The travesty is that she traveled to one of the most beautiful places on the planet and never experienced it. While thirty-seven other individuals left China with their lives changed forever as a result of having been there, Madelyn Miller returned in the same close-minded cocoon in which she left.

I thank you, those who have read so diligently this far, and hope you who had concerns with Regent China Tours previously, based on Ms. Miller's earlier correspondence, will take the time to visit Regent's site (http://www.regenttour.com/) and to speak with Chunyang Jiang, owner and operator of the Tampa office of Regent China Tours, who invites any of you to call him regarding your thoughts on Miller's column or this correspondence (1-800-896-1916). Call me to share your thoughts (1-800-354-1302) or e-mail me at joyfulnoise@earthlink.net. Visit my site at http://www.joyfulnoise.net/JoyChina1.html. Or speak with Rabbi Merle Singer of Temple Beth-El of Boca Raton, who has offered to talk with anyone who would like to know his opinion of this tour and of Madelyn Miller's comments. The temple has given us "rave reviews."

I hope those of you who have not traveled to China will do so, and that those who have been will return, whether with Regent or another agency. May your experiences there, as well as in all your travels, be wonderful ones. I consider it my privilege to have experienced this amazing and delightful country and its people and to lead other travelers to know it themselves.

Kindest Regards,
Joy Katzen-Guthrie
http://www.joyfulnoise.net

AN ADDENDUM

As a contrast to Ms. Miller's comments, let me share with you the following two letters, one written to the group's national guide by a couple from the same tour group in which Madelyn Miller traveled, the second from Rabbi Merle Singer himself.

* * * * * * *

Wed, 04 Jul 2001 17:52:56 +0800
Subject: Our thanks for your teaching us about your country

Dear Liang,

Our trip to Chana came to and end on Wednesday and we sadly left for the United States. Audree and I will spend may hours telling our friends, our families and our grand children about the exciting things we saw, learned and did. Most of all, we will talk about how different the Chinese country and people are, than what we had thought.

I want to thank you for all you did to make our trip so special. We thank you for teaching us about Chinese culture and Chinese history. These are lessons which came late in our life, but, we will tell our children and grandchildren and I hope that one day, they too can visit China.

Several nights ago, while in Hong Kong, we were getting ready to go to bed. I turned to my wife and said...."My fondest dream would be to come back to China in 5 or 10 years. I am sure we would not recognize, even that part of the country we have visited. China is a growing country and a changing country.

Our history books have taught us the China gave the world so very much in art and culture. They have given us knowledge in science and the building blocks to the growth of modern science. I don't believe that we, in the western world, have appreciated or respected China's contributions. I am happy that we have had a chance to visit and see and learn for ourselves.

Shortly before we left on our trip I had an opportunity to visit with my uncle who is a Nuclear Engineer. He spent a great deal of time in China because his company was given the first license to come to China and work with Chinese Nuclear scientists and together they built the first Nuclear Power Plant. He told me of the people he met and worked with and the relationship they still enjoy when he comes back to visit.

One night while we were in Shanghai, we were walking from the Bund, back to our hotel. I passed some old walls and thought about everything that has happened in this city over the past years.. I wished that the walls could talk to us and tell us their story. When I came back to our hotel I wrote this poem. I hope you will enjoy it.

If these walls could only tell us
Of the stories walls could tell,
Of the rising of a nation
And the burning wars of Hell.

Of the people's rise to power
Then the changing of the ways,
And the image of a nation
Of the mind games that it played.

How the land matured with wisdom
Still the ignorance that abounds,
And the cries of little children
With the empty belly sounds.

Then the sun rise of tomorrow
And the ring of freedom's call,
With love and understanding
And with brotherhood for all.

If we only stop and listen
To the stories walls could tell,
Then the peace of loving brothers
Would replace the fires of Hell.

Thank you again for your friendship. I hope we can meet again in your country or in the United States. You will always be welcome in our home.

Respectfully,
Harold and Audree Singer
Boca Raton, Florida

* * * * * *

Subject: Re: A Review of the Travellady
Date: Sun, 8 Jul 2001 22:44:39 EDT

Dear Joy:

Thank you for your very complete response to Madelyn Miller's diatribe against Regents China Tour. I am aghast at what she said. But as you stated in your letter, I believe that she had her own agenda and was using her newsletter to get back at Regent for not giving her a free trip [which she did not deserve].

In addition to what you said about her in your letter, you ought to know that she singlehandily almost created a disaster on the trip that could have lead to several of us being seriously hurt. [This she does not report.]

"Travellady," experienced in world travel, at one of the airports, put her many bags [including her mother's] on a cart and then proceeded to take the cart up the escalator. Before I could stop her, another traveler followed her with his cart. At the top of the escalator, his cart got stuck and those of us behind him would have pilled up on top of one another save for the quick mindedness of another member of our group who was able to kick the fallen luggage out of the way.

It doesn't surprise me that I am in for criticism too, because for the first time in all my leading travel groups, I "lost it" with her and let her know clearly what I thought of her dangerous and irresponsible antics. From then on she kept her distance from me.

I doubt if I will ever see her again. But I am very sorry that her writing has caused damage to Regent's reputation. As soon as Myra and I are able we will write our review of the trip which I hope will help undo some of the damage the she has done. Thanks for your letter and also for all the help you were to us on trip.

Merle Singer


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