Rural tourism and in-depth travel experiences are on the rise in China. Tiger Bihu Wu, professor and director of the Center for Recreation and Tourism, Peking University, discusses the shifting landscape of rural tourism development in China.
Can you share your overall thoughts on rural tourism development in China, and any issues you’ve identified?
Tourism development is generally insufficient in China. Currently, there are many ancient towns and streets under tourism development. However, the government simply relocates the local residents and reorganizes houses based on development plans, instead of developing a landscape of cultural heritage. As a result, local residents do not have much willingness to offer support, let alone actively participate in tourism development.
In the case that the local residents are willing to be relocated, even if they obtain a one-off compensation payment, they still suffer loss within the whole system as they are not entitled to the share of profit from local tourism. In general, the advantages of tourism development are seriously unbalanced between the government, investors and local residents.
Do you have any suggestions for finding a better balance?
The land rights in rural areas should be clarified: To improve community participation, the best way is to legislate for farmers’ private lands to empower the locals. Once the farmers possess ownership of their lands, they are able to negotiate with the government and investors under legal protection.
Those who intend to seek development in these lands must respect the farmers’ ownership, and the farmers are entitled to hold the houses or villages as their assets. This also empowers local residents to negotiate with investors to find the best way to develop the land jointly, integrating the capital of investors with traditional villages and culture.
What are some of the benefits you see from promoting domestic tourism and rural tourism?
First, the proportion of the tertiary industry (service sector) has been increased these years, with tourism as the most thriving economic sector. Secondly, China is actively promoting rural preservation to prevent cultural heritage from declining as most youngsters have moved from the countryside to cities.
Thus, the most effective means of rural tourism development is to combine the primary industry with the tertiary industry. This will bring economic benefit and simultaneously preserve traditional villages. It is quite feasible to resurrect rural development through measures of market-oriented economy.
How can Chinese communities make this a reality as tourism is increasing so rapidly?
Through promoting the values of tangible and intangible cultural heritage and providing the economic benefits to the local residents. In my opinion, rural tourism development is a way to protect those heritages rather than destroy them.
However, it is true that some governments or investors may destroy heritages due to the lack of experience. Therefore, it is important to establish the best capacity through visitor management. For example, The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet has applied reservation system to manage the number of guests.
Do you have any success stories that other Chinese communities can use as a model?
The development of rural tourism in Taiwan is a good example. Taiwanese farmers have rights to decide whether to participate in tourism development or not. With the frequency of academia-industry collaboration between large education research institutes and farmers, local industry has been prospering. For instance, the Graduate Institute of Building and Planning of National Taiwan University have launched an internship program cooperating with local residents of Pinglin District at New Taipei City in publicizing local tea, Blue Magpie Tea. Students have employed innovative marketing strategies and successfully revived the local economy while preserving precious natural landscape. Such collaboration has made a fine model for tourism development based on academia-industry partnership.
Can you provide examples of rural destinations that have successfully highlighted their unique culture and heritage?
Mogan Mountain in Zhejiang Province, which is two hour’s drive from Shanghai, is a notable example. With great advantages of natural resources, cultural assets and convenient transportation to Mogan Mountain, local tourism has developed diverse types of tour packages, including a farmhouse stay, a Western-style house stay and outdoor activities like cycling, canyon adventures and creative cultural workshops. These have enhanced the local industry, prompting the aggregation of rural areas surrounding Mogan Mountain and further promoting the development of local infrastructure and tourism.
What tools can smaller, less-touristed communities use to make themselves more navigable and accessible to foreign visitors?
Many attractions that are not easily accessible maintain the most precious cultural traditions in China. We aim to promote those attractions through different types of tourism, such as self-driving tours that allows more flexibility for tourists. For instance, Yunnan province has encouraged tourists to rent a car and drive themselves to discover more spots. This provides inbound tourists more ways to discover those areas.
Along the lines of self-guided travel, can you share a bit about the growing trend of backpacking in China?
Chinese outbound travelers were focused on shopping for the past years, however, there is an increasing number of travelers who tend to spend more time on vacation. In addition to that, the number of people traveling individually has increased in recent years, too. Students who study abroad often start traveling in this way and then bring this into China.
To what do you attribute this shift in how Chinese people travel?
This is related to the stage of social development in China. With the fast development in China, there are more and more middle-class travelers who are willing to spend money on in-depth travel.
Second, the industry leaders who came back from overseas have brought demonstration effects to new generations. Those leaders regard traveling as a lifestyle and involve outdoor activities such as cycling, and canyon adventures.
In addition to that, the advantages of traveling with a tour group have gradually disappeared. Although tour operators provide more comprehensive tourist information, much of that is now provided by online and by the attractions themselves.