Archives for posts with tag: tourism

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Look at that beautiful, empty boardwalk. Stretching past the river and enticing you around the corner and into the unknown—don’t you want to follow it?

Unfortunately, my travel companions at Jiuzhaigou National Park did not. They were anxious to take their selfie-stick selfies and get back to the crowded main road where buses whisked tourists from one poetically named Scenic Spot to the next.

I had sky-high expectations about Jiuzhaigou before I set out. I had heard of its reputation as one of the most beautiful natural places in China. I’d seen photographs of its stunning turquoise lakes and majestic waterfalls, set against a background of brilliant red foliage. The park has been heralded as a model of sustainable nature-based tourism in China. It’s been celebrated for the rich culture of the local Tibetan inhabitants, who still practice a form of the pre-Buddhist Bön religion.

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Naturally, I was not the only one aware of Jiuzhaigou’s mythical beauty. Since it first opened to visitors in 1984, the park has received thousands of tourists from across China and the world (but mostly China), and their numbers continue to increase. In 2001, measures were taken to limit tourists to 12,000 per day.

To their credit, the park authorities have done everything they can to preserve the delicate ecosystems within the park, while still allowing visitors to enjoy the sights. Tourists are kept on elevated boardwalks away from the vegetation, and they are not allowed to stray from the trails or touch the water. They are shuttled to and fro on “green buses,” (powered by low-polluting liquefied petroleum gas), and ordinary vehicles are prohibited. Visitors are required to leave the park every night. The local Tibetan villagers are allowed to live inside the park in their ancestral homes, but they cannot farm or hunt; instead, they earn money through tourism-related activities and receive portions of the park’s ticket revenue. Studies have suggested that several wildlife species, such as Amur hedgehogs, wild boars, and the endangered takin, have increased in population since the area was protected.

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Nevertheless, an influx of millions of tourists per year will inevitably create rippling impacts across the region. Just outside the park gates lies an epic sprawl of hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities. Driving towards our hotel (a very nice Holiday Inn) we passed by blocks of newly constructed apartment buildings, a colorful “Bar Street” à la Lijiang, and a resplendent 5-star Sheraton. One could argue that any conservation happening inside Jiuzhaigou National Park is being negated by the rampant development just outside.

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The very concept of nature-based tourism is a paradox. The truth is that Jiuzhaigou is absolutely beautiful. It’s the kind of striking natural beauty that of course every person wants to see. I am an environmentalist for very selfish reasons, if I’m honest: I love nature, and I want to be able to enjoy nature in a so-called pristine state. I also want other people to be able to enjoy nature, and I believe that people are much more willing to care about and protect nature when they have experienced it themselves. But I am a human, and my very presence in a rural setting will have an influence on that place. To visit a place like Jiuzhaigou, I need a road to get there. I need a vehicle and a place to refuel. I need somewhere to spend the night, and somewhere to buy food.

That said, I think there are measures that can be taken to limit tourism development to a reasonable and sustainable level. They didn’t have to build quite so many luxury hotels. They didn’t have to build an airport for god’s sake, allowing urban tour groups to whisk into Jiuzhaigou without ever stepping off a man-made surface. Sometimes a little inaccessibility can be a good thing—I loved my trip last September to Yubeng, a Tibetan village accessible only by foot or horseback, in part because the other tourists were limited to the type who do not mind getting their shoes dirty. I didn’t see a single selfie stick during that trip.

Even as I write this though, I realize how pretentious I sound. I deserve access to these places because I can actually appreciate nature, unlike all those other shallow, uneducated, selfie-taking tourists.

Maybe I’m just a little bitter because I feel like I missed out on what might have been a nicer Jiuzhaigou experience. I’ve heard, via English-language tourism websites, that there are ways to avoid the crowds. You can take the buses all the way to the top and then hike down, in the opposite direction from everyone else. You can eschew the buses altogether and just hike around at your own pace. You can follow those little boardwalks that lead you away from the Scenic Spots with poetic names, and also away from the crowds.

All of these options require you to be willing to miss out on seeing some of the famous, but farther-away lakes and waterfalls. I was willing to skip these, but my travel companions were not, and I can’t really blame them. Jiuzhaigou is extremely famous in China, to the extent that they read about the Five Color Pond (五彩池) in their grade-school textbooks. It would be like an American visiting Washington D.C. for the first time, and deciding to spend all day in the National Postal Museum instead of visiting the Lincoln Memorial, just because it was quieter.

In the end, my trip to Jiuzhaigou was still absolutely worth it. We made the most of our one day in the park, and the landscapes we saw were truly spectacular, unlike anything I had ever seen before.

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I’m even glad we had a selfie stick with us, because you know what? Some of those pictures turned out pretty darn good.

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(I’m the second creepy panda from the right)

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I will no longer be working at Rock Bar as a server.

Business has been slow, and now that the peak season is over my services at Rock are no longer needed. This is a good thing, actually. I’m going home to the US in a couple of weeks to renew my visa, work on grad school applications, and enjoy time with family and friends after a long absence. Now I can use my last few weeks in Yunnan to travel and explore, hopefully lessening the shock before I extricate myself from what has proven to be one of the most fascinating, emotional, maturing, and unforgettable summers of my life.

But all that is for another time. What I really want to write about is something far more boring—the economy in Lijiang. Working at Rock has given me a glimpse into the inner workings of Lijiang’s tourism industry, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

I’ve written before about tourism in Lijiang, and the widespread commercialization and commodification of the Old Town. I already knew that everything in Old Town exists for the purpose of making money from visitors. What I hadn’t realized was how deeply this has penetrated every sector of the tourism industry. I’ve also written before about the importance of guanxi (connections) in Lijiang. Now I see that guanxi forms the very core of Lijiang’s economic structure. Without it, you’ll never survive.

Most businesses in the 21st century operate within the simple restrictions of supply and demand. In Lijiang, businesses must juggle three parameters: supply, demand, and commission. Tour companies receive commission from guesthouses. Guesthouses receive commission from bars and restaurants. Individual tour guides receive commission from everyone. This is simply how it’s done. No business succeeds in a bubble. Nobody survives outside the system.

Lets take a hypothetical bar as an example. This is a brand-new bar that just opened, and it’s in a difficult-to-find location. Thus it would make sense that the bar should keep its prices low—at least until it builds a reputation. After all, Lijiang is saturated with bars, and this new bar lacks a competitive edge. But the weird thing about Lijiang is that it is saturated with tourists as well. Even places far from the center, such as where this bar is located, are still swarming with people at all hours of the day. So in a city with practically unlimited supply (bars) and practically unlimited demand (customers), how do businesses compete? Why is Man Xiang Bar (one of the most successful in Lijiang) packed every night, while Rock Bar is so empty that they can no longer justify paying me?

The answer is that (almost) every bar in Lijiang pays 50% commission to guesthouses. If you sell a 40RMB bottle of beer to a stranger off the street, you make about 37RMB of profit (yes, the markup is that big). If you sell it to a tourist who came from a specific guesthouse, your profit is slashed in half.

In Lijiang, everyone stays in guesthouses. The average bar is filled 90% with guesthouse-affiliated drinkers, leaving very few tables available for independent travelers. This means that every bar in Lijiang is marketing themselves not towards average consumers (most of whom like to save money when they can), but to guesthouse staff. From the point of view of the guesthouse, a more expensive drink means more commission. The guesthouse would prefer to take their guests to a bar that serves 40RMB beer, rather than to a bar that serves much more reasonable 20RMB beer. This is why everything is expensive in Lijiang.

The problem with our hypothetical bar is that the location is inconvenient from the point of view of guesthouses. When a guide takes their guest around the Old Town, they take them through high-volume shopping areas where they will get commission, then to a nearby restaurant where they will get commission, and then to a bar where they will get commission. Our hypothetical bar is not located near any of the main shopping areas, so guesthouses usually don’t bother coming. Meanwhile, the prices are far too high to appeal to the rare individual traveler from the street. Add to this the fact that management has put far too little effort into advertising, marketing, and establishing connections with guesthouses (guanxi!), and it’s apparent why business is slow.

So who holds power in Lijiang? It isn’t the tourists. It isn’t the bar owners. It isn’t the local tour guides or individual guesthouse owners, although they certainly benefit from the system. There are really only a handful of truly powerful people in Lijiang. These guys not only own large tourism agencies, they also own numerous shops, restaurants, guesthouses, and bars. All of these businesses work together, and the commission money stays within a closed loop. Man Xiang Bar is packed every night because the owner sends drinkers from his own guesthouses, all located nearby.

The strangest thing to me about this whole system is that it leaves us—the consumers—completely stranded. The economy is neither demand-driven nor supply-driven. It’s like a private game played among the local businesses, and the consumers are trapped in the middle with no choice but to pay inordinately high prices. Until the massive groups of Chinese tourists catch on and stop coming to Lijiang—unlikely—the system will never change to meet the demands of consumers.

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Nestled in the foothills of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain sits a cobblestoned city, the ancient stronghold of the Naxi Kingdom. Although hundreds of years have passed since the Mu Chieftains ruled Lijiang, the city’s soul has remained untouched, as pure as the water flowing through the canals alongside every winding street.

The local Naxi people live in perfect Harmony with nature, carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. They are a peaceful people who rise with the sun to dance every morning, the women’s sheepskin capes flapping with their steps, and the men chanting A-Li-Li and Hua-Hua-Se.

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If this is your first time in Lijiang, you might feel out of place as a modern urbanite among the ancient sod-brick houses and crumbling stone bridges. But Lijiang is a welcoming place, where nobody is an outsider for long. As soon as you arrive, you can settle into a traditional Naxi guesthouse with a cobblestone courtyard. You can eat yak meat, rose-petal cakes, and other exotic local foods. You too can buy flowing ethnic-print pants and cloth shoes and silver headpieces just like the local minorities have done for centuries. You too can braid colorful threads into your hair like the Tibetan nomads (or was it the Qiang?), and drape a hand-woven Mosuo shawl around your shoulders. You can learn to play wooden drums like the locals. You can sit atop a majestic horse and ride through the streets, posing for pictures as the sun sets behind the magnificent Snow Mountains.

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This is the Lijiang that persists in the imagination of the tourist.

It is a fantasy.

For most tourists visiting from China’s polluted metropolises, Lijiang represents the ultimate exotic escape. The average tourist arrives, checks into a romantic guesthouse, buys colorful clothing and ethnic jewelry, sits on a horse, plays a wooden drum, poses for pictures, and then leaves. He or she might continue on to Dali, Shangri-la (Zhongdian), Jinghong, or another southwestern Chinese city where the process is repeated anew. The fantasy remains intact.

Most tourists do not know—or do not wish to know—that the majority of romantic guesthouses in Lijiang are owned by wealthy Han who moved in from elsewhere, pursuing exotic fantasies of their own. They do not stop to notice how dirty and underfed the horses are. They never think about how the wooden drums are actually African bongos.

The tourists don’t know that the Tibetan hair braiding trend was started by a couple of hippies from Canada. They purchase their flowing pants and silver headpieces knowing full well that they will never wear them again, because the Lijiang Fantasy stops once you leave Lijiang. The hippies strolling along the cobblestones with flowers in their hair are wearing costumes. It isn’t real. In all my time in Nanjing, I never once saw anybody wearing a Dongba-printed maxi skirt or shoulder-length tassel earrings. It doesn’t even matter that the Dongba print was shipped from a sweatshop in Dhaka, or that the earrings were manufactured by the millions in a Guangdong factory.

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Tourism anywhere is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it brings crucial income and infrastructure to impoverished areas. Thanks to the tourist industry, Lijiang is currently a modern, well-developed city with beautiful roads, an airport, and a worldwide reputation. On the other hand, an influx of tourists damages the ecosystem through habitat destruction and pollution, highlights the gap between the rich and the poor, and irreversibly alters the local culture. Rural farming villages that were once no different from Lijiang now seem desperately impoverished in comparison. Every year the snow line climbs higher and higher up the side of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. For most tourists, Naxi culture has been reduced to some pretty costumes, mysterious writing, and a quaint way of life.

Some say that the Lijiang Fantasy is a harmless escape for romantic tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of something extraordinary. Some say that it is racism. Some say that it is a careful manipulation on the part of the Chinese government.

In my last post, I touched on the fetishization of Muoso people living on Lugu Lake. This commodification of minority culture is astonishingly common across all of China. It is considered perfectly acceptable for Han people to dress up in traditional minority costumes for performances, work, or just for fun. This practice drew international criticism during the 2008 Olympics, when a group of 56 adorable children representing China’s ethnic groups paraded through the opening ceremony carrying the Chinese flag. Later, all 56 children were revealed to be Han.

Many suspected that the government opted not to use real ethnic children in order to avoid any potential disturbances, since the Olympics occurred during the midst of violent protests in Tibet. While this fear no doubt played a part, I suspect that the Chinese government never even imagined that the Han children in ethnic costumes might be offensive. In China, the Han majority doesn’t consider this a problem. It’s common in Lijiang to see Han women dressed in elaborate ethnic clothing and posing for pictures. There is a booming business of “costume shops” all around the city, where women (and sometimes men) can get their hair and makeup done, don flashy ethnic garb, and have professional pictures taken.

In the US, this would be called “cultural appropriation,” akin to rich white folks wearing Native American headdresses to music festivals. It would be considered unequivocally offensive.

As an American in Lijiang, I felt uncomfortable seeing Han women in ethnic costumes. But after spending more time here, I’m not really sure it’s perceived negatively by the locals. Once my office took a trip to the mountains to help some Beijing designers photograph traditional Lisu clothing and handcrafts. The Lisu women were jumping up and down trying to get me, the foreign girl, to try on their clothing. They thought it was an awesome idea. I agreed in the end…but those pictures will never see the light of day!

A few weeks later, the Naxi women in our office brought traditional clothes in to work to wear to the COART arts festival. Before we left for the festival, everybody in the office took turns trying on the clothing, and the Naxi women were the ones holding the camera and cheering everybody on. They saw this as a fun, lighthearted way to share their culture with others. After all, cultures have been exchanging clothing, objects, ideas and beliefs since the dawn of human civilization. The American obsession with cultural appropriation sometimes goes too far, and only further heightens the perceived divide between the Modern and the Primitive. Nobody would ever blame my Naxi coworker of appropriating American culture when she changed out of her traditional costume and into jeans at the end of the art festival. Sometimes—especially in the US—our desire to be politically correct limits us from exploring other cultures at all.

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That said, I believe there is a darker side to the commodification of ethnic minorities in Lijiang, Yunnan, and China in general. There’s a big difference between trying on clothes with friends, and paying somebody on the street to try on a traditional headdress for a picture.

Regardless of whatever the Chinese government says about harmony, the prevailing discourse throughout China is that the Han are at the center, and the minorities are at the periphery. This is evident at parliamentary meetings when the few token minority representatives are expected to dress in their traditional costumes, while the Han representatives all wear western-style business suits (not traditional Han clothing). This is evident when entire theme parks are created around minority culture, and Han tourists pay to see minority people engaged in traditional activities like making handcrafts and dancing.

China’s minority cultures are thus frozen in time. Unlike the Han, minority cultures are stuck inside a set of stereotypes that appeal to outsiders—they are quaint, close to nature, primitive, exotic, and charming. There is no room in Chinese discourse for them to be otherwise.

It has been well documented that when cultural theme parks are built, the managers—almost always Han businessmen—pick and choose which aspects of the culture are most attractive to urban, short-term Han visitors, and focus only on those aspects. This means that many superficial characteristics of the culture are preserved—things like craftwork, architecture, music, and clothing. Other cultural features like religion, rituals and indigenous worldview, however, are ignored completely. Over time, they are in danger of disappearing. Meanwhile, stereotypes of exoticism and primitiveness are reinforced over and over again in the eyes of the tourists.

Many argue that these stereotypes are deliberately promoted by the Chinese government. Showy theme parks help maintain an image of territorial unity and ethnic harmony, keeping the undesirable aspects of minority culture out of sight—things like organized religion, political values, and separatist leanings.

Although Lijiang isn’t strictly a cultural theme park such as Dai Minority Park in Xishuangbanna or Yunnan Ethnic Folk Villages in Kunming, it nevertheless perpetuates many minority stereotypes. The average Han tourist only glimpses a few visible aspects of Naxi culture before leaving, reinforcing the perception that the Naxi are happy, nature-loving, female-centric, and exotic.

And yet, Lijiang retains a below-the-surface authenticity that can never exist in a true theme park. The Naxi people who have called Lijiang home for centuries still call the city home today. They live and work and carry out their everyday lives just outside the gates of the Old Town. Their language is alive and well (although less so among young schoolchildren). The Dongba religion, while not universally practiced, is still studied by many Naxi people. For tourists who are truly interested in the complexities of Naxi culture, there are numerous resources on Dongba traditions available for their exploration.

So where am I going with this?

I first decided to write this post over a month ago, when I saw two horses grooming each other in the middle of Square Market, the busiest part of Old Town Lijiang. Oblivious to the crowds of people and the flashes of cameras, the two chestnut ponies stood neck to neck, noses jingling under the weight of their flashy decorative bridles as they groomed each others’ manes. They were an island of serenity and authenticity amid the chaos. After a few minutes, their handler pulled them apart and led one pony away, where a fat tourist in a sunhat was waiting to live out his Lijiang Fantasy. The spell was broken.

This post took me over a month to write because I couldn’t put my finger on what to make of it all–the crowds, the souvenirs, my friendly coworkers, the stunning snow-capped mountains. Like almost every issue in China, it is impossible for me to draw any finite conclusions about the tourism fantasy in Lijiang. China is full of contradictions. Everywhere I look I see both modernity and tradition, strangeness and familiarity, good and bad, immense wealth and staggering poverty. Lijiang takes all these contradictions and condenses them into one valley.