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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

In China, as tourists come, culture goes

October 29, 2010

By Mitch Moxley
Asia Times
October 29, 2010

JIAJU, China - In 2005, the National Geographic
China magazine named this ethnic Tibetan village
in western Sichuan province, sprawled over a
valley amid snow-capped mountains, China's most
beautiful. Depending on how you look at it, that
distinction was either a blessing or a curse.

During the national day holiday in October,
middle-class Chinese tourists from Sichuan's
capital, Chengdu, and beyond, literally crawl
over this "Model Tibetan Village", as a regional
brochure puts it. For an entrance fee of 30 yuan
(US$4.48), tourists wander through locals'
multi-storey stone homes and pose for pictures on
rooftops decorated with drying corn.

On almost every rooftop, alongside faded Tibetan
prayer flags, flies the red and yellow flag of the People's Republic of China.

"It's beautiful," a young woman from Chengdu,
visiting with five friends, says of the village.
"It's not that famous yet, like Shangri-la or
Lijiang, but it's getting more popular."

Shangri-la and Lijiang are among the most popular
tourist destinations in China's southwest, home
to a good number of the country's rich mix of
ethnic groups. The old town of Lijiang is also a
United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization World Heritage Site.

The village of Jiaju has no doubt benefited as a
result of tourism - there are few signs of
poverty and many villagers own new cars and
sports utility vehicles. But tourism has also
impacted the surrounding environment and changed
the fabric of the village. Indeed, Jiaju embodies
many of the issues China's minority regions face
as the country's internal tourism industry grows.

Fueled by growing middle-class and government
support, China's tourism industry recorded a 9%
jump in revenue in 2009, to 1.26 trillion yuan
($189 billion). This year, total revenue is
expected to reach 1.44 trillion yuan, a
year-on-year jump of 14%, according to state media.

As Chinese grow wealthier and become better
traveled, many are seeking more authentic
experiences than tour groups can offer. These
tourists, armed with Gore-Tex outerwear and
telephoto camera lenses, are beginning to visit
China's remote regions - many populated by
minority groups - including Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet.

Wang Huigui, who works for an international
company in Beijing, is an example of this new
breed of traveler. Wang, who calls himself a "lao
lu" - seasoned traveler - travels solo and has
been to Sichuan's Tibetan region five times, and Tibet proper four times.

"I come every year to these areas. I like taking
pictures," Wang says atop an ancient Tibetan
tower in the town of Zhong Lu, a less-traveled
village about 20 minutes drive from Jiaju. "I'm
very interested in China's minorities - their
history, their culture, their language."

Li Fei, a manager at state-controlled China
Shan-Shui Travel Agency, which is affiliated with
the Ministry of Land and Resources, says interest
in trips to the Tibetan Autonomous Region had
skyrocketed in recent years. He says the agency
receives up to 70 and 80 applications to visit
Tibet every day, and will accommodate about 2,000 tourists a year.

"They love Tibet," Li says. "The feedback we get
is very positive. They think the lakes and sky are really clean."

In China, however, appreciation of minority
cultures can quickly turn to exploitation. The
country is home to a growing number of
minority-themed tourists parks, such as the Dai
Minority Park in southwest China's Yunnan province.

There, villagers are forbidden from making major
changes to their traditional wooden-stilt homes
and are paid to perform a daily water-splashing
ritual for which they are famous. The real
water-splashing festival normally lasts just
three days a year. The park, owned by and
catering to majority Han Chinese, welcomes a half-million tourists per year.

The most famous minority park in China, Beijing's
Nationalities Park, for years featured English
signs with the unfortunate translation "Racist
Park". In many parks, the ethnic minorities
featured are actually Han Chinese dressed up as natives.

In minority villages, the idea is to provide a
more authentic experience. But in places like
Jiaju, a Disneyland-like atmosphere persists, and
the local culture adjusts to fit Han preconceptions.

Jiaju, once an isolated mountain village, was
introduced to the world after a 1998 visit by a
Hong Kong traveler, who persuaded a local family
to turn their home into a guesthouse. Within a
few years, dozens of neighbors followed suit,
converting their homes or building new hostels from scratch.

Soon, tour buses began clogging the winding road
to town. Logging and home-building stripped the
surrounding mountainside, bringing dangerous
landslides. Trash began piling up in ditches around town.

He Ming, the director of Yunnan University's
Research Center of Ethnic Minorities in China's
Southwest Frontier, says increased tourism helps
foster development of minority regions and
increases local incomes. For Han tourists, the
experience of visiting minority regions provides
a valuable cultural exchange that promotes
goodwill between China's different ethnic groups.

But He says that governments at the federal and
local levels must take steps to protect the
rights and interests of the minority cultures,
rather than exploit them to accommodate Han tourists.

"These cultures are unique, and an invasion of
different cultures will destroy them.
Furthermore, with an increasing number of
tourists pouring into minority regions, the local
governments commercialize the cultures, and even
religious practices are changed," He says.

"Every coin has two sides," the tour operator Li
says. "Profits from the tourism industry have
poured into the minority regions. At the same
time, cultural assimilation occurs. We make sure
to tell tourists the local customs and taboos before their departure."
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