2018-01-04 12:16:59

China’s “Snow Town,” a well-known tourist hot spot in Heilongjiang province, has become embroiled in a reputation crisis after millions of Chinese netizens were drawn to a social media post by a man sharing his experience of being swindled in the town when he and his family visited in late December.

Snow Town is a scenic village occupying just 5 square kilometers on the outskirts of Mudanjiang, a city in the southernmost part of the province. For over half the year, the town is covered in a thick, white blanket of snow that attracts a large number of sightseers: In 2016, it brought in nearly 300,000 visitors and 230 million yuan ($35 million) in tourism.

However, a visitor using the online handle “YM Traveler” claimed that when his family of three arrived at one of Snow Town’s family-style inns on Dec. 27 for a two-night stay, they were told that the room rate was nearly four times higher than the 276 yuan per night they had booked online weeks ago.

“I argued that this is precisely the reason people make hotel reservations well in advance of a trip,” the frustrated guest wrote in a post on messaging app WeChat. “But the innkeeper said, ‘Now that I’ve told you there’s an outstanding balance, you’ll do what I say.’”

Eventually, the family was kicked out on the second day, after they refused to pay another 800 yuan for the 20-square-meter room. YM Traveler wrote that staff even warned him not to post any negative comments or reviews on online booking platforms. In addition to his family’s horrible accommodation experience, YM Traveler complained about Snow Town’s price-gouging at tourist sites and eateries: Instant noodles, for example, could cost up to 60 yuan.

Mudanjiang’s tourism bureau responded to YM Traveler’s post on Thursday, saying it had investigated the inn where the family stayed, confirmed instances of malpractice, fined it nearly 60,000 yuan, and ordered it to temporarily suspend operations.

The bureau also apologized to YM Traveler and his family, but insisted that theirs was an isolated case, and that tourism in the town was held to a rigorous standard. “At the moment, things in the town are stable,” said a representative from the tourism bureau, according to The Beijing News.

When reached by Sixth Tone on Thursday, the bureau declined to comment further, and messages sent to YM Traveler on Thursday morning went unanswered.

However, in screenshots of a conversation YM Traveler had with tourism authorities, which he included in a follow-up post, a bureau representative describes Snow Town as “a pillar industry that we built over the past 18 years, and 40,000 people in the area rely on it.” YM Traveler’s initial post, they said, had had “an enormous impact” on the town.

Lumber — not tourism — was once the pillar of Snow Town’s economy. But when Heilongjiang banned logging in April 2014, the locals began to shift their attentions to attracting visitors. But the transition has not been without its rocky patches.

In another online post from January 2015, a Snow Town guest alleged that a night’s stay at a local farmer’s home cost him 3,200 yuan — an exorbitant rate one might expect, he wrote, for the presidential suite at a five-star hotel in Beijing. The post also described the town’s management as “extremely chaotic,” with guests being charged 180 yuan for a bowl of fried eggs, or arbitrary fees for taking photos in public.

Even some Heilongjiang natives are reluctant to visit Snow Town. Bao Wei, who hails from Harbin, the provincial capital, told Sixth Tone that after her uncle, a photography enthusiast, visited three years ago, he told her entire family to steer clear of the town.

“My uncle told us about how he was charged 100 yuan nearly every time he chose a spot to take photos,” said the 35-year-old Bao, explaining that the locals felt entitled to a cut if there was a possibility their homes or businesses might be included in the shot. “Even without spending the night or having any meals there, he got a taste of how chaotic the tourism management is. You can’t feel their hospitality — only their thirst for money.”

Mudanjiang’s tourism bureau has said that it will announce follow-up measures in the days to come and ensure that Snow Town returns to its whitest, purest form.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: A woman pulls her daughter on a sled through the snow in Snow Town, Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang province, Jan. 19, 2017. Chu Yang/VCG)