FEATURE: Yunnan leads the way in tourism openness
KUNMING, China June 15 Kyodo
Yunnan, a subtropical area in southwest China next to Myanmar, will soon become the first Chinese province to allow overseas visitors to choose their hotel.
The previous accommodation restriction, requiring overseas visitors to stay in government-designated hotels only, will be lifted during the second half of this year, the Yunnan Provincial Public Security Bureau confirmed.
Earlier this year, the bureau lifted the restriction in seven trial cities — Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Yuxi, Qujing, Chuxong and Xishuangbanna. Based on the trial, the bureau has now decided to rescind the restriction throughout the entire province.
Yunnan received more than 1 million overseas tourists in 2000 and more than $300 million in foreign exchange earnings from tourism, making the province one of China’s top tourism areas.
Since the early 1990s, an increasing number of tourists have come to discover the natural beauty and cultural richness of Yunnan, which is home to no fewer than 25 ethnic minorities, each with its own distinct language and customs.
Largely rural, the province has escaped some of the most obvious forms of environmental degradation that have come to characterize China’s more industrialized provinces.
Yunnan’s economy — one of the most backward in the country — was given a major boost by the World Horticultural Exposition, held in Kunming between May and October 1999.
On display were two million plants of 2,551 varieties from 43 countries. One million foreigners and nine million Chinese visitors passed through the expo, bringing in ticket revenues of 1.2 billion yuan ($145 million).
So successful was the expo that in November 1999, it was made a permanent fixture. The 218-hectare site now features a bamboo garden, lake and giant greenhouse.
The Yunnan government spent 1.6 billion yuan to stage the event, and even more on infrastructure upgrades, including roads, airports and communication networks. In 1999 alone, Yunnan’s highways were lengthened by 33%, to 102,405 kilometers.
In Kunming, alleys were widened into boulevards, old buses were replaced, clutter was cleared and trees were planted, making the city a more attractive place to visit.
But Kunming is merely the jumping off place for areas that have become tourist hotspots because they create an image of ”old China” that has long since gone from places such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Many tourists fly south to the tropical delights of Xishuangbanna, ”China’s Thailand,” home to the Dai people and numerous hill tribes. The area contains a number of heavily protected nature reserves promoting eco-tourism.
Yunnan’s other hotspot is its scenic northwest, home to a number of distinctive minorities. Under Mao Zedong, every effort was made to assimilate the minorities into the Han Chinese mainstream and, particularly during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 ethnic culture was heavily attacked for being a throwback to the bad old days.
Now, a more enlightened central government encourages minorities to revive and glorify their cultural differences.
Tourist groups now swamp the old backpacker trails from Kunming to Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian. Their mix of architectural charm, traditional customs and relaxed pace make Dali and Lijiang the China most foreign visitors dream of, an exotic contrast to gray cities.
As the home of ”Shangri-La” airport, Zhongdian has successfully cashed in on its claim to be the inspiration for James Hilton’s 1933 bestseller ”Lost Horizon.”
The Shangri-La phenomenon, whereby a fictional lost paradise was ”rediscovered” by a Chinese government committee in 1997, drew nearly 2 million tourists last year.
The visitors provide steady incomes to Tibetan yak herders and barley farmers, who can spurn their flocks and fields to sell horse rides on the grasslands and open their homes for overnight stays.
But the tourist boom also has a downside.
Although Lijiang enjoys a prestige listing as a World Heritage Site under the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the danger signs of quick development are all too clear, and UNESCO officials admit they are worried.
In Lijiang’s old town of narrow streets and quaint houses, every home appears to have been transformed into a shop, hotel or gallery.
Entrepreneurs are busy improving on nature, flattening hills for a water park near Zhongdian, and carving up Lijiang’s Jade Dragon Snow Mountain with cable cars, skiing resorts and a golf course.
Lijiang now boasts 67 hotels. Many families from the dominant Naxi minority rent out their homes as hotels, restaurants and Internet cafes, and some 30,000 are employed in the tourism industry.
In 2000, they received 3 million visitors, earning the town some 1.5 billion yuan, compared to just 300 million yuan five years ago.
Nestled between Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake, Dali is highly photogenic, but it too, is being ”developed” apace.
The lake, 40 km long and a gorgeous sea-blue, is home to a Buddhist temple on a thumbnail of an island and a larger island with a market offering food and local wares and a few scenic trails, not to mention more day markets on the other shore of the lake. At night, old fishermen appear with cormorants.
Dali’s main street offers an endless supply of marble vases, ashtrays, frogs, antiques, minority arts, donkey taxis, clothing, irresistible street food and ”very resistible” Western cafes.
From Kunming there are daily flights to Xiaguan, which is a 30-minute minibus ride to Dali old town. Xiaguan is a 7 to 9-hour journey by ordinary bus from Kunming or 6 hours by luxury coach. There’s also a train option, although the trip from Kunming to Xiaguan is 10.5 hours and only leaves once a day.
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