The Pearl River Delta (or PRD) is in Guangdong province, China. It is a bustling region with massive manufacturing and trade; most of it is heavily built up and densely populated. Chinese planners are talking of merging much of it into a single mega-city with a population of 40-odd million.
Economically and linguistically, the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau — located on opposite sides of the mouth of the Pearl — are very much part of the PRD. However, they are administratively and politically quite different. This article therefore does not include them.
A high-speed rail system (top speed over 300 km/h, about 200 mph) is being built to link all of the Delta cities together. Large parts of it are already in service.
The region has eight prefectures named for their main cities which we list below.
- Guangzhou (or Canton) is the provincial capital and the economic and cultural center of the region. It is a few hours up the Pearl River, is thousands of years old and has been a trading city since the days of the Maritime Silk Road.
- Dongguan - center for the garment trade, between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, including the manufacturing town of Houjie.
- Foshan - industrial city near Guangzhou to the southwest that includes the Shunde district, which is famous for its many criss-crossing waterways.
- Huizhou - a pretty and rapidly-developing town on the Northeast edge of the region
- Jiangmen - port city in the western part of the Delta; the prefecture includes the county-level cities of Kaiping, Enping, Heshan and Taishan.
- Shenzhen - is on the mainland next to Hong Kong. It was basically a group of fishing villages until the late 1970s. Then it was made a Special Economic Zone and developed incredibly rapidly; today it is a boom town, 11.4 million as of 2015 and still growing.
- Zhongshan - center for furniture trade, just inland of Zhuhai.
- Zhuhai - is on the mainland next to Macau, also a fishing village turned SEZ, 1.56 million in 2010, and is somewhat less rich and less brash than Shenzhen.
Shenzhen and Zhuhai are Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where various government programs encourage investment.
- Kaiping - A rural county west of the PRD known for its villages and watchtower dwellings built by overseas Chinese in the early 20th century in a mixture of western and eastern styles. Also the setting for the popular Chinese film "Let the Bullets Fly" 《让子弹飞》.
This region has always been one of China's major centers for foreign trade, from the days of the Maritime Silk Road through the era of tea clippers and into recent times.
Guangdong province produces about a third of China's total exports; most of these are from the Delta. The region is often referred to as "the world's workshop." The largest product groups are clothing and electronics but the industrial base is extremely diverse and the range of products manufactured is enormous.
In 1978, a small processing workshop making handbags for export to Hong Kong opened in Dongguan. This was the first export processing business in China. From then on, as Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening up" policies went into effect the Delta underwent absolutely frenzied development, partly fueled by heavy Hong Kong, Taiwanese and foreign investment. There was also significant investment and massive migration from other parts of China.
During these decades, GDP growth in industrialized countries was generally 0 to 4% a year. China managed 8 or 9% overall national growth every year for decades. The Delta was the fastest-growing region at around 15% a year! That is, GDP doubled every five years from sometime in the 80s until 2008. Shenzhen, the showcase city of the Pearl River Delta, likes to brag it is "the fastest growing city in the fastest growing region of the fastest growing province of the fastest growing country in the world."
Part of the "opening up" was creating Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to encourage investment. Two of these — Shenzhen and Zhuhai — are in the Delta. Both have undergone phenomenal growth, from fishing villages in the 70s to bustling modern cities today. Shenzhen is now well over 10 million people, Zhuhai about two million.
The Delta was hit hard by the world economic slowdown and the collapse in exports around 2008, but has mostly recovered.
The traveler on a really tight budget should get out of this area altogether and seek the real bargains in China's hinterland.
The cost-is-no-object traveler can stay in Hong Kong, or go to up-market places in other cities, and have a wonderful time either way.
Residents of Hong Kong or Macau routinely cross to Shenzhen or Zhuhai for cheaper shopping, services and entertainment; travellers can do the same.
The main language of the region is Cantonese. However Mandarin has been the language of education and government throughout mainland China for decades, so it is also very widely spoken. In Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese is more common since it was used in education and government until about the turn of the century. In Shenzhen and Zhuhai, Mandarin predominates because of massive migration from other regions. Hakka is spoken by a significant minority in the region, but most speakers of that can also handle Cantonese, Mandarin or both.
English is more commonly spoken here than in most regions of China, due partly to the influence of Hong Kong and partly to the extensive foreign trade connections in the region. However, it is still not all that widespread; you can expect reasonable English from staff in many hotels and tourist shops, but generally not from a taxi driver or the waitress in a local restaurant.
Other foreign languages — anything from Swedish to Swahili — are sometimes heard since this is a very cosmopolitan region, but none are widespread or generally useful for travellers. However, a few of the higher-end hotels specialise in visitors from particular countries; these can provide services in Japanese, Russian or the major West European languages.
Guangzhou and Hong Kong both have major international airports with many international flights. Both are relatively new; Hong Kong's opened in 1998 and Guangzhou's in 2004. On Wikipedia's list of world airports by passenger volume, Hong Kong ranks 11th and Guangzhou 16th.
Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Macau also have large modern airports, all built or greatly expanded since 1990. Some of the international low-cost carriers fly to Macau or Shenzhen because these airports have lower landing fees than Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Zhuhai handles almost exclusively domestic flights.
The region is also well connected to the rest of China by road and rail. The backbone of China's high-speed rail system is the line from Guangzhou to Beijing via Wuhan and Nanjing at 300+ km/h (near 200 mph) all the way. This passes through many cities, various lines branch off it to others, and another 300+ line goes north from Beijing to Harbin. Another fast line, though only 250 km/h, runs along the coast from Shenzhen to Shanghai via Xiamen and Hangzhou.
Citizens of most countries can get a Hong Kong visa or Macau visa at the airport, but will need to get a Chinese tourist visa in advance. You can get these from a Chinese embassy or consulate in your own country. For most passports, visas can also be obtained at the government office in Hong Kong or Macau; the Macau office has shorter lines. Many travel agents in either city can also arrange a visa for a small fee. The government-owned CITS (China International Travel Service) has an office in Hong Kong airport which can arrange both visas and flights.
There are special visas which allow you into Shenzhen or Zhuhai but not out into the rest of China. They may be obtainable at the border, but as of 2009 they were not available for US or some other passports. Check the Shenzhen entry for details.
The entire region is well connected by highways and any city or town in the region is easily reached by bus. Driving yourself is not recommended; see Driving in China.
There is a good system of passenger ferries, mostly fast hydroplanes, connecting the main cities on the Pearl River estuary — Hong Kong and Shenzhen on the East side, Macau and Zhuhai on the West. There are also some helicopter links, fast and convenient but very expensive. See the "Get in" sections of city articles for details.
A combination bridge and tunnel system linking Hong Kong to Zhuhai and Macau has been constructed and is scheduled to open to the public in summer 2018.
All the cities have good local bus systems (but watch for pickpockets) and plentiful taxis. Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong also have subways. See the "Get around" sections of city articles for details.
Check the articles on individual cities for various things worth seeing, in particular Guangzhou for many historic buildings and many museums, and Shenzhen for a large collection of theme parks and more museums.
Kaiping has many diaolou (watchtowers) built by overseas Chinese, mainly in the early 20th century. These buildings combine features of Western, Chinese and sometimes Middle Eastern architecture and are often quite large. They are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
If you are interested in Chinese history in the era of tea clippers, then the Opium War Museum in Dongguan is definitely worth a visit.
The Canton Fair, held twice a year in Guangzhou, is China's most important trade fair. In the era of tea clippers, the Emperor allowed foreigners to trade only at Canton (now called Guangzhou). In Mao's era, the Canton Fair was almost the only place where Chinese and other businessfolk could meet to make deals. Those eras are long gone, and there are now many other channels for trade, but the Fair remains huge and important.
The Cantonese style of food is the basis of "Chinese food" the world over, because Guangdong provided most of the Chinese emigrants. It is not heavily spiced like Sichuan or Hunan food.
Dim sum — small items mostly served in the bamboo steamers used to prepare them — is a Cantonese specialty available mainly for breakfast or lunch. Some dim sum is sold by street stalls and some can be found on menus in some restaurants, but in many restaurants the staff push carts around between the tables for you to choose. Almost any dim sum place will at least a dozen choices and some have over a hundred.
The larger cities have a good range of restaurants offering various sorts of non-Cantonese food; Japanese, Indian and Italian seem to be most common. There are also stores with foreign groceries; the German-based Metro chain is most popular with western expatriates.
In both large and small cities, Sichuan restaurants are common and there are some Hunan places; both are seriously spicy. West-of-China noodles and kebabs are also fairly common and often quite moderately priced; look for restaurants whose staff are in Muslim dress. Some western fast food chains like McDonalds and KFC are already widespread, others are expanding and several Chinese companies are also in that market.
The Filipino brand San Miguel has breweries in Hong Kong and Foshan. Their beer is quite popular with expats and travellers in Guangdong.
See China#Drink for more general information; everything there applies in the PRD with only minor local variations.
See Zhuhai#Lotus_Road for a more-or-less unique drinking experience, a collection of tiny open-air bars on a pedestrians-only street.
The area is heavily infested with pickpockets. There is some risk of typhoons in summer, especially near the coast.
There are several nearby areas that are well worth visiting.
Two that are linguistically, culturally and economically part of the PRD but politically different, so not covered here:
- Hong Kong is a former British colony on the east side of the river mouth. It was founded in 1841, Britain's prize after one of the Opium Wars, and soon eclipsed Macau as the center of the China trade. In 1997 it became a Special Administrative Region of China, retaining much of its laissez-faire capitalist energy under the slogan "one country, two systems".
- Macau is a former Portuguese colony on the West side of the river mouth. It was the first European enclave in East Asia, and a major trading port from its founding in the 1500s. Today its main attractions are casinos, European food and wine, and old colonial buildings. In 1999 it became a Special Administrative Region of China.
- Guilin and Yangshuo for famous mountain and river scenery
- Hainan for tropical beaches.
- Yunnan, home to many of China's minority ethnic groups and a very popular tourist destination.
- Vietnam via any of the above or Laos via Yunnan
Going Northeast into Fujian province:
- Wu Yi Mountain for history and scenery
- the lively modern city Xiamen
- Yongding County, with the huge earth houses of the Hakka people