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Rich Chinese experience ‘camping’ as authorities forcibly settle nomads

August 14, 2017

By Xiluramen

The Economist,  - August 10, 2017 - A tour party of 30 people in red baseball caps piles off a coach at “Swan Lake”, a yurt park in Inner Mongolia in the north of China. “I wanted to see the grasslands,” says a woman from Kunming, 2,000km to the south, who is posing for photos beside a giant bronze statue of a pointy-helmeted Mongolian warrior on horseback. The “authentic Mongolian experience” costs 380 yuan ($55) a night. Yet unlike traditional yurts with portable metal or wood frames overlaid with thick wool covers, these structures are made of sheet plastic and have beds, windows, Wi-Fi and en suite bathrooms. And instead of being dotted across the steppe, they are arranged in tightly packed clumps. Glamping, or glamorous camping, meaning camping minus the hassle and grunge, usually in pre-erected and well-appointed tents, is becoming a popular pursuit for city folk at beauty spots all over China.

The proliferation of glampsites partly reflects an overall rise in domestic tourism by 10-15% a year for much of the past decade. Rural tourism has been an important strand in this. The government has encouraged it, in the hope that it will help its campaign to cut poverty. Across the countryside nongjiale, or rural guesthouses, promote themselves as relaxing retreats from urban life. In Hunan in central China pods with transparent roofs offer campers a chance to enjoy “a special view of the sky”. Other glampsites house customers in geodesic domes. New camp and caravan parks are appearing all over the country. The government hopes a further 2,000 will open by 2020.

Most of China’s glampers are not seeking glorious solitude. They seem unperturbed by experiencing the wilderness in crowds. The southern shore of Qinghai Lake in the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau is lined with a range of yurts, sleeping pods and other structures. A single campsite in Hubei can accommodate 8,000 people. Many offer entertainment too. The Swan Lake tourists enjoy Mongolian banquets and dancing in a giant concrete yurt.

While glamping has gained ground, China’s genuine campers—nomadic herdsmen—have been settled, often forcibly, under successive policies that have divided common land, banned free grazing and compelled households to move. Nearly half of China’s 2m registered nomads had become sedentary by 2010 (the most recent date for which data exist). Most were members of one of China’s ethnic minorities, including Tibetans, Mongolians and Kazakhs. The sightseers and campsite owners, by contrast, are usually ethnic Han, who make up some 92% of China’s population.

The Chinese government boasts that relinquishing the nomadic lifestyle represents “enormous strides towards modernity” and refers to the annual migration of pastoralists’ herds as a dangerous “ordeal”. Yet in recent years herders have staged repeated protests at forced relocation, appropriation or pollution of their grazing lands and poor compensation. Many lack the skills to find work in cities; those remaining on the grasslands often struggle to make a living now that grazing has been curtailed. Some also see resettlement as part of a broader erosion of their ethnic identity. The happy glampers at Swan Lake and elsewhere, it seems safe to assume, are unaware of all that.

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