Shantou, (汕头; Shàntóu), known as Swatow in the local dialect, is a coastal city and Special Economic Zone in Guangdong Province in China. It is located in the east of the province near the border with Fujian. It has a population of around 5,500,000 as of 2015 and a booming economy.
The city came to prominence during the 19th century when it was established as one of the treaty ports for trading with the West. In the 1980s it was designated as one of China's Special Economic Zones with tax breaks and other government measures to encourage development. See List of Chinese provinces and regions for more detailed explanations of "treaty port" and "special economic zone" if required.
Overseas visitors are not common in the rural areas around Shantou, and those of non-Chinese ethnicity will definitely be an attraction to residents. Those unaccustomed to this may feel intimidated. However, this is a very friendly type of attention, and unless you really dislike interaction with people you don't know, this will almost certainly be a highlight of your trip. Do not be surprised if people want their picture taken with you, or if they yell to friends and family to come look at you as well.
As with elsewhere in mainland China, standard Mandarin is the only language taught in schools and the main language in the official broadcast media so expect all educated people to be fluent in Mandarin. The Teochew (潮汕片) variant of Minnan (Southern Min 闽南语) is the main language here, and it is only marginally mutually intelligible with mainstream Minnan (闽台片泉漳话) (Hokkien-Taiwanese). Teochew (潮汕话) differs from mainstream Minnan (闽南话) spoken in the neighbouring Southern Fujian and Taiwan significantly in pronunciation, and use of slang which are unique to the area. Locals who speak the Teochew (潮汕话) dialect can understand a fair bit of the mainstream Minnan (闽南话) albeit with some difficulty, as most do not necessarily speak it.
The locals are very proud of their local language, despite government attempts to standardise Mandarin as a common language. Most people of the Chaoshan region speak both the local dialect and Mandarin daily. Any attempts to speak mainstream Minnan (闽南话) (although Teochew 潮汕话 is preferred) will be met with encouragement, and may even get you preferential treatment in shops and restaurants. If you are a Mandarin-speaking foreigner, you will be able to communicate with locals and get around as most services have staff who speak Mandarin.
English is not widely spoken, though staff at the higher end hotels will be able to speak English. As Shantou is part of Guangdong province and the influence of the Cantonese language media, many people speak Cantonese as a third language.
The airport which serves Shantou is called Jieyang Chaoshan International Airport (IATA:SWA) which in 2011 replaced Shantou Waisha Airport and hence the new airport uses the old airports IATA name, SWA, which has domestic connections with most of the major Chinese cities. It also serves international flights to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, etc.. One can take a taxi or airport express bus from the airport. The airport express bus drops passengers off in Shantou Railway Station, Golden Golf Hotel (Shantou-East line) and Oversea Chinese Hotel (Shantou-West Line). The price of the ticket is 20 CNY.
Guangzhou Baiyun Airport offer Intercity Bus service. You can stay at Shantou Tourist General Corporation.
Shenzhen Bao'an Airport doesn't offer Intercity Bus service like Guangzhou. You can transfer via high speed railway from Shenzhen to Shantou.
There is also an airport in Xiamen.
A high-speed bullet train line connecting Xiamen to Shenzhen via Shantou is now in service. Beyond Xiamen, it continues along the coast all the way to Hangzhou and Shanghai. From the ends of that line, there are good connections almost anywhere in China. It will take about 2.5 hours from the Chaoshan High Speed Rail Station (the closest one to Shantou, about 1 hour from city center by Bus #181, 10 Yuan) to Shenzhen North Station; 1.5 hours from Chaoshan High Speed Rail Station to Xiamen North Station. Public bus is available from Shantou city center to the railway station. The economy class ticket price from Shantou to Shenzhen is less than 100 CNY.
It is reported that Shantou Railway Station in Shantou Urban area will connect to the Xiamen-Shenzhen High speed railway at the end of 2017. The train station is now in refurbishing as of Feb 2017.
If you want to travel slowly or cheaply, the following choices may still be available:
By bus or car
Zhuhai (8 hours, ¥160), Guangzhou, Shenzhen (4-5 hours, ¥150) or Xiamen (4 hours, ¥100). There is fairly new highway that is on par with U.S or European expressways running between Shenzhen and Shantou (and beyond). However, food and gas stops are limited so make sure your gas tank is full if you opt to pass a fueling station. Note that restrooms are far below Western standards as well, particularly if you are female.
Some Hong Kong residents prefer to drive these highways in groups of 3-4 cars, as robberies sometimes take place along the road.
The Shantou Regency Hotel operates a coach service from Hong Kong. It takes 5.5 hours and costs ¥180 or HKD200. This can rise to HKD320 or ¥300 during the Lunar New Year period. Tickets can be purchased from the China Travel Service HK and one may board the bus in Sheung Wan, Yau Ma Tei or Fanling Station.
Shantou public buses can be highly variable and service frequency can depend on the whim of the operators, particularly during evening festival dates. Recorded announcements are made over the speaker system in Mandarin and Teochew, however the frequent use of the horn and general noise can make it difficult to understand.
On many services, one needs to notify the bus driver verbally if they would like to alight as the buzzers are inoperable.
Metered taxis exist, but rarely will the driver use the meter. The fare needs to be negotiated, preferably before the trip to avoid arguments later.
Traffic in Shantou, as is common in this part of China, is chaotic at best. Do NOT expect vehicles to stop at red lights, as motorcycles and bicycles regularly go through red lights without slowing down. Also, do NOT expect vehicles to go with traffic, as cars, motorcycles, and bicycles regularly go AGAINST the flow of traffic (e.g. going southbound in a northbound lane). Furthermore, do NOT expect only pedestrians on sidewalks, as cars, motorcycles, and bicycles regularly zip along the sidewalk as if it is just another lane on the road. Also, watch out for motorcyclists who do not even slow down at red lights, with one hand on the steering handle and the other with a cell phone, talking. However, with all this, there are fewer accidents that one may expect given this chaos, mainly because people do slow down if they see you.
There is self-service rented bike available in Shantou city center, starting from early 2017. Tourist can use it to tour in the city area, and the rent rate is cheap. However, you may need to register in the Chinese bike renting apps on your mobile before you using it.
Lots of local food available which is also famous in China, including Beef Balls (牛肉丸), Baked Oyster Cakes (蚝烙, Oh Lua in Chaoshanese), Seafood, etc.
Home Inn business hotels are a good choice for short and long term visitors. Rooms are new and clean and prices are around USD 30 per night.