Still haunted by the fatal stampede in Shanghai last New Year's Eve, China's tourist spots are bracing themselves for the sternest test in managing millions of holidaymakers during the week-long National Day holidays starting today.
Statistics from Ctrip, China's leading online travel service provider, show that tourist favourites such as the Palace Museum in Beijing, West Lake in Hangzhou, Gulangyu Island in Xiamen and the Bund in Shanghai are set to be overcrowded during the Golden Week break.
The annual break is expected to see record tourist numbers this year as many have combined their Mid-Autumn Festival vacation on Sunday with the National Day holidays by taking leave from work earlier this week.
The Chinese authorities are jittery about overcrowded public places in the aftermath of the stampede that killed 36 and injured 49 in Shanghai last New Year's Eve.
The tragedy was blamed on inadequate security measures that resulted in the scenic Bund area being overcrowded with more than 300,000 people. It has also prompted a safety review of public places.
"A repeat incident is unlikely to take place given the efforts and measures put in place since the Shanghai stampede. But the authorities should still be vigilant as tourist numbers could set new highs this year," Mr Liu Simin, deputy secretary-general of the Beijing Tourism Society, told The Straits Times.
Under the guidelines introduced in April, all tourists hot spots have to declare their maximum capacity and take steps to control crowds and slow the pace of visitors once they are 80 per cent full.
The tourist spots have to alert local government officials and stop ticket sales once the visitor number reaches the maximum capacity.
Popular sites, like the picturesque Jiuzhaigou valley in Sichuan province, have issued advisories that tickets would not be sold on site when they reach their maximum capacity. They urged holidaymakers to book tickets online.
The Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, is maintaining a cap of 80,000 daily visitors, with up to 50,000 available for online booking. The cap is less than half the 182,000 visitors that it attracted on Oct 2, 2012 - regarded as its most crowded day in every National Day Golden Week.
Mr Liu believes crowd-control measures have limited impact as tourist demand remains high, thanks to rising affluence and greater ease of transportation in China.
He said the effective long-term solution is to reinstate the Labour Day Golden Week that was scrapped in 2008 and to introduce another Golden Week in early August to satisfy the people's wanderlust.
Beijing local Wang Fang, 45, an airline manager, is going with her 15-year-old son for a five-day trip in Shanghai from today despite her ordeal last year of waiting for hours to enter a railway station in Beijing to travel to Beidaihe resort town in neighbouring Hebei province.
"I would avoid crowded places in Shanghai entirely or visit them in off-peak hours," she said.
Singaporean student Vera Yap, 21, who has been on a year-long exchange programme in Shanghai since August, believes there is no escaping the crowd when she and a friend make a three-day trip from tomorrow to nearby Hangzhou.
While they will avoid tourist spots frequented by groups, Ms Yap said "there is not much we can do as the entire China is on holiday". "We just have to take it as part of the experience," she told The Straits Times.
- Additional reporting by Carol Feng