The one thing foreigners complain most about in China is public toilets.
A retired pilot, who had lived overseas for more than 40 years, once wrote me a letter, saying: "In the autumn of 2013, I came across a group of some 100 German tourists during my trip to the Three Gorges. The Germans I talked to were full of praise for China, but they said toilets at tourist spots were a big problem. I even saw a German woman forced to pee in her pants because she couldn't find a (clean) toilet."
Many foreigners who go to China say they will never forget the scary toilet experience. Given this fact, how can the country's tourism industry take big strides?
Many local governments are investing a lot of money, material and human capital to promote their tourist sites, yet they are reluctant to make real efforts to build and manage clean toilets.
What they don't understand is that dirty and poorly equipped toilets could put all their efforts in tourism promotion to waste, which will have an almost irreversible negative impact.
In order to grow, the tourism industry has to fill the gap in public services, particularly in providing clean and well-maintained toilets. After several years of efforts, many tourist spots have made some progress in building and managing toilets.
Yet, on the whole, they have not been able to overcome the problem of dirty, untidy, poorly equipped toilets. Nor have they been able to ensure enough and easily accessible toilets.
As a major tourism destination that receives more than 3.7 billion visitors a year, China should not treat the problem of toilets as a small matter. According to estimates, the average tourist visiting China uses public toilets eight times during one trip, which means tourists as a whole will visit toilets more than 27 billion times a year. This is indeed an astronomical number.
If we want to make tourists feel comfortable and happy, finding a solution to the toilet problem should be our top priority.
Unfortunately, the problem has become almost intractable over time. It is precisely for this reason that we need a slogan like "Toilet revolution for tourism evolution".
Public toilets are a necessary facility. But as they are also an important part of local infrastructure, local officials have to play the primary role in building and managing them by including them in their infrastructure plans.
The Tourism Department must also issue strict guidelines for the construction and management of toilets at tourist spots, and help the planning, management, transport and environmental protection departments fulfil their duties.
The key to a successful "toilet revolution" lies in institutional innovation. We need to develop a market-based system for building and managing toilets, for "a good toilet is 30 per cent construction and 70 per cent management".
Many public toilets in China are built according to high standards, but as the management is not up to the same standards, they become dirty and fall into disrepair.
We need to integrate and use various kinds of resources based on the principle of "market-based and commercialised operation", and explore multiple ways and channels to make sure that there are enough public toilets and that they are well-managed.
Modern toilets are a combination of new materials and new technologies. We have to use eco-friendly materials in their construction, take measures to improve natural ventilation and employ methane fermentation and other advanced technologies to keep them clean, tidy, dry and odourless.
Targeted steps have to be taken to help tourist spots solve problems in toilet construction and management. In the plains, we should explore the use of new toilet technologies and materials suited to local conditions.
In high-altitude and cold regions, we must seek ways to prevent freezing in toilets. And in places with water shortages, we have to find solutions to the flushing problem.
Amid all this, we should not forget that users play an equally important role in keeping toilets clean and dry. For that, we need to vigorously promote civilised toilet culture among Chinese nationals and tourists.