Source: China Daily | 2020-07-29 | Editor:Alison
Hidden in the mountains with graceful landscapes, diverse flora and fauna, and rich and unique ethnic culture, Yunnan's Weixi Lisu autonomous county has remained largely unknown to tourists.[Photo by Yang Yang/China Daily]
A town in Yunnan is seeking to capitalize on its scenery and multiethnic culture to put itself on the tourist map to catch up with development and overcome poverty, Yang Yang reports.
He Qinglin is on a mission to bring the world to his hometown-by bringing his hometown to the world.
The 30-year-old ethnic Naxi has spent the past three weeks traveling throughout the Dali Bai and Dechen Tibet autonomous prefectures in Southwest China's Yunnan province. He has been on the road seeking cooperation with travel agencies and tourist attractions to introduce his hometown and guesthouses to potential customers.
He comes from Tacheng town, the "east gate" of Dechen's Weixi Lisu autonomous county inside the UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, the region of three parallel rivers-the Jinsha, an important upstream branch of the Yangtze; the Lancang, known as the Mekong outside of China, that runs into Southeast Asia; and the Nujiang that runs into Myanmar as the Salween River.
Despite its graceful landscapes, diverse flora and fauna, and rich and unique ethnic culture, Weixi has remained largely unknown to tourists.
However, China's tourism development is entering a new stage, when people want more relaxing holidays and deeper interactions with local cultures beyond mere sightseeing following a tight schedule on an economical budget.
Insiders in Weixi, including He, expect more visitors in the coming years.
The yard of the duo's boutique hotel.[Photo by Yang Yang/China Daily]
The 4,476-square-kilometer county hosts 160,000 people from 28 ethnic groups, including Lisu, Tibetans, Naxi and Pumi. Half of the population is ethnic Lisu.
Paved provincial roads winding around giant mountains like gray ribbons stretch among endless peaks alongside rushing rivers.
As the altitude descends from 3,300 meters in Shangri-La to 1,800 meters in Tacheng, the weather becomes warmer and more humid in summer.
Mountains become flatter and are covered with denser vegetation.
Standing at high points, people can see green valleys in which vineyards framed in by ancient walnut and chestnut trees extend for miles.
Flat mountains crouch like gentle herbivorous dinosaurs whose smooth skin is covered with moss. White clouds pushed by cool breezes through blue skies just above the mountains cast shadows on the terrain. The county is home to orchids, herbs, azaleas and rare Yunnan snub-nose monkeys.
Due to its special geographical location, Weixi has abundant rainfall and sunshine. It's known as "the emerald of the Hengduan Mountains".
But Weixi's residents had long lived in poverty. Most survived by growing grapes, crops, herbs, vegetables and mushrooms on limited land, since mountains jut from 90 percent of its territory. Economic development has been limited since more than half of the area is ecologically fragile.
Before 2019, 70 of the county's 82 villages lived in poverty, with per capita incomes averaging less than 3,750 yuan ($533).
Consequently, tourism is the second pillar industry after farming. But it remains underdeveloped, with only 1,600 residents working in the sector.
Last year, Tacheng received 138,000 tourists, generating about 12 million yuan in revenue.
Dechen, by comparison, received over 22 million visitors in 2019. The government plans to invest in infrastructure and to build villages with unique local elements to develop the travel industry.
Tacheng can "serve as Shangri-La's backyard garden" since a road completed last year reduces travel time between Shangri-La city and Tacheng to 30 or 40 minutes. Tacheng can enjoy the comparative advantages offered by its relatively lower elevation-high humidity and lush forests.
He left Weixi after graduating from middle school at age 16 to work as a guide and driver in such hot tourist destinations in Yunnan as Dali and Lijiang.
He accumulated experience and savings. So, he returned to Tacheng in 2015 because he says he always thought of his hometown, where people were still living in poverty.
Based on his experience, He believes Tacheng's tourism is promising because the forests have been well protected, the air is fresh and the mix of ethnic groups creates a distinctive and rich culture.
Forests cover nearly 87 percent of Tacheng's 807 square kilometers.
People from eight ethnic groups, including Tibetan, Pumi, Naxi and Han, live together, sharing languages, customs and traditions to an extent and in ways rarely seen in other places.
He Xinhai introduces his experience about developing tourist companies to visitors.[Photo by Yang Yang/China Daily]
As a guide, He has been to many guesthouses and hotels, which inspired him to renovate his family's home into a distinctive guesthouse, using local stones, wood and old furniture collected from villagers. The project lasted two-and-a-half years and cost 1.6 million yuan.
The 13-room guesthouse opened at the start of 2019 and received about 300 customers that year. Fewer travelers have visited since the COVID-19 pandemic, but his business has gradually picked up over the past month, he says.
While he was renovating his own yard in 2017, he started working with seven families in Tacheng, renting their spare granaries and renovating the buildings into guesthouses.
He and his partner pay each family 10,000 yuan as renting fees, and additionally, give them 25 percent of the profits.
He's experience in tourism pushed him to target middle-budget and high-end consumers.
"Such positioning will help to protect nature and the culture in my hometown because the relatively high prices will naturally filter out a large number of visitors traveling on low budgets and too many people. It will be easier to maintain the tourist attractions and prevent the town from being over-commercialized," He says.
A visitor stands outside the boutique hotel cofounded by He Xinhai and Liu Zhigang.[Photo by Yang Yang/China Daily]
He's not the only person who has returned to Tacheng to develop tourism.
In 1998, 20-year-old He Xinhai retired from the army and became a guide in Lijiang, where he saw how ordinary people benefited from booming tourism.
He dreamed that he would one day return to Tacheng to start travel businesses that would help his hometown prosper.
When he returned to Weixi five years later, He Xinhai was greeted with locals' doubts that he could succeed on such a remote and obscure mountain.
"But I couldn't give up because villagers of my parents' generation didn't attend school or master any skills. Even if they went to cities to work, nobody wanted them. If I gave up, people in my hometown would do nothing but continued struggling in poverty," He Xinhai says.
Many young people in Weixi leave for cities because they see no future in the mountains. But others have to stay.
So, He Xinhai hired residents who can't leave to work elsewhere, including 30 employees and 80 temporary workers.
Since 2015, 500 villagers have worked for him, earning incomes totaling nearly 2 million yuan.
Liu Jinying lost her husband in an accident in 1997. The 50-year-old ethnic Tibetan has since struggled to support her two sons by farming alone.
He Xinhai knew their house had collapsed and helped raise 200,000 yuan to build a new home for them. Now, Liu's two sons work for He Xinhai's mushroom company, and Liu works at his hotel. She says their family's life has improved a lot.
He Qinglin (right) and his family pose at the gate of his guesthouse that he renovated from their old yard.[Photo by Yang Yang/China Daily]
He Xinhai not only developed such basic tourism services as driving, guiding and accommodation but also founded companies to produce such local specialties as wild walnuts and matsutakes.
He believes talent is key to tourism development, so he invited 40-year-old Liu Zhigang to join him.
Liu, who's from East China's Shandong province, has run guesthouses close to Dali's Erhai Lake for years. Liu came to Weixi for the first time in May 2018 and determined it to be promising.
In 2019, he invested 10 million yuan to cofound a boutique hotel with He Xinhai that offers views of the surrounding mountains.
The hotel sits in the middle of a large piece of open land and is close to the National Park for Yunnan Snub-Nose Monkeys and the Cave of Bodhidharma, the master of Zen who's said to have introduced Buddhism to China in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581).
The front of the yard features a pond. Visitors can fish in the rice paddies, make tofu or pick matsutakes, Liu says.
The area's natural scenery features mountains, forests, highland-barley fields and the winding Lapu River set among special ethnic culture, he says.
"Especially before and during Spring Festival, people of different ethnic groups celebrate according to different but intermingling traditions, which is a very festive time," Liu says.
The hotel, which also targets middle and high-end markets, has 17 rooms that cost from 680 yuan to 1,680 yuan a night. Liu and He Xinhai say this price positioning is the result of other considerations.
"It's a segment we're familiar with," Liu says.
"And it's easier to sell local specialties, such as walnuts from ancient trees and valuable mushrooms, to customers with big budgets."
Another reason, Liu says, is that they hope to open villagers' minds toward advanced business models, services and thought to upend poverty at its root.
"The hotels create a kind of community where villagers can, by participating in management, communicate with more open-minded customers, which is the key to how tourism can really change the countryside," Liu says
"We want to play the role of a bridge that can connect cities and villages to increase the exchange of not only goods but also ideas."
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