The recent spate of news about low standards of hygiene in hotels didn't come as a surprise to those of us who travel around China regularly. But the news has also exposed that the problem pervades almost all strata of the hospitality industry, as even some five-star hotels in Beijing were found to be sloppy when it comes to maintaining hygiene and sanitation.
Poor hygienic conditions undermine trust in the hospitality industry. In that sense, it is a hurdle to the ongoing economic recalibration in China (the economy is being weaned away from its reliance on investment and manufacturing toward a more service-oriented growth). The new consumption-led economy will not realize its full potential until people have confidence in the ability of restaurants and hotels to protect them from infections by taking adequate hygienic measures.
Ultimately, only higher hygiene awareness among the people can lead to higher standards ... And government intervention can help increase public confidence in the hospitality industry
That many people in China I have spoken to avoid eating out for fear of food safety and adulterated foods shows Chinese people care a lot about hygiene.
Standards of hygiene in the hospitality industry may be patchy but it can be assumed that most upscale hotels and restaurants are safe. It's mostly in the lower end of the hospitality industry that hygiene is problematic. But most people cannot afford to eat or stay in five-star hotels, so good hygiene standards have to be ensured across the board. We are talking about strict hygiene measures in food preparation, as well as other aspects of service - such as ensuring that bed sheets and pillow cases are properly washed after each guest leaves a hotel room - especially thorough cleaning and disinfecting of bathrooms.
I use the word "ensuring" because raising hygiene standards requires concerted efforts by the government and the hospitality industry both. And the standards can be raised through education, proper training and enforcement.
Education has to be targeted at everyone, from the service providers to the consumers, to be effective. Ultimately, only higher hygiene awareness among the people can lead to higher standards. As for training, it has to be compulsory for everyone working in the catering department (European governments, for example, stipulate that all those working in catering undergo a food handling course). And government intervention can help increase public confidence in the hospitality industry and thus encourage people to travel and eat out more frequently, which in turn could boost domestic consumption.
Regulation and enforcement, too, have to be tightened. For instance, only metal surfaces should be allowed in restaurant kitchens (smaller, family-run neighborhood eateries can be spared this requirement because they make extra efforts to keep things clean). Wooden chopsticks invite bugs, which thrive in the cracks in the wood, so hotels and restaurants should be encouraged to phase out wooden chopsticks by substituting them with chopsticks made of synthetic materials.
Enforcement, too, has to be more stringent. There should be regular yet unannounced, inspections of hotspots, such as restaurant kitchens in hotels and other public facilities such as schools, bus and train stations, and sports centers. All these ought to be part of the ongoing economic reform, because they are needed to put the service-oriented and consumption-led new economy on a stronger footing.
The author is a freelance writer specializing in culture, travel and lifestyle.