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    Why Aren’t China’s Beloved ‘Minsu’ Making Money?

    Despite benefitting stressed city dwellers and cash-strapped rural communities, the country’s budget inns have trouble staying afloat.

    In June this year, Shanghai’s Pudong New Area officially granted licenses for the first time to minsu, or Chinese-style bed-and-breakfasts, a move that legitimized the country’s B&B industry and its growth in the past decade. At the same time, Chongming Island — the northernmost district of Shanghai, situated at the mouth of the Yangtze — has signaled its intention to become a “world-class ecological island,” something that has given the island’s minsu proprietors cause for optimism.

    As Chinese society becomes more prosperous, people are forking out more and more money on leisure and tourism. This greater spending power, combined with the desire to escape the concrete confines of one of the world’s largest cities, creates romanticized dreams of a pastoral paradise away from the inexorable tide of modernization.

    The Chinese word minsu is of Japanese origin, where the same characters are pronounced minshuku. These budget inns emerged during the 1920s as Japan’s tourism industry began to develop in earnest. In recent years, however, China’s B&B industry — particularly businesses in small but readily accessible rural towns — have been heavily influenced by the industry in Taiwan.

    China’s original minsu chain, Blossom Hill Inn, was established in 2009 in Lijiang Old Town, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province. Additional mainland minsu have sprung up since then thanks to the government’s strong pushes to develop countryside tourism.

    This phenomenon has also altered tourists’ outlook on nature. Once seen as Shanghai’s desolate outlying island, Chongming now stands as a perfect getaway destination. Liu Qing, founder of Zhigu 1984, one of the island’s many minsu, told me in an interview: “Chongming’s greatest advantage is its ability to serve Shanghai. While its surrounding natural landscape can’t compare to places like [the eastern Chinese province of] Zhejiang, it can still offer a refreshing experience.” Cheerful and clean, Chongming’s minsu offer Shanghai’s overworked and overstressed urbanites a taste of nature, and without hotel prices.

    To a certain extent, minsu represent a backlash against urbanization. As hordes of rural young people have left their villages and migrate to cities, so, too, have urban residents started dreaming about escaping the city, albeit temporarily. This accidental arrangement benefits everyone involved. When villages empty out, the numerous unused homes in the suburbs can be repurposed as minsu and bring money back to the countryside. City dwellers, meanwhile, can enjoy relief from the fast pace of urban life.

    This dream exists in the hearts of travelers and of many minsu owners alike. The U.K., the U.S., and Japan all have long histories of family-run country lodgings providing room and board without the frills. Now, Chinese people are repurposing unused homes as minsu to cater to locals who idealize country life. Indeed, many minsu owners in Chongming worked for some time in the city before choosing a more pastoral life.

    In contrast to the more standardized service of hotels, minsu offer customized experiences that reflect the owner’s personality. Some, for example, may attract budding architects with their quirky designs, while others may specialize in rural crafts or outdoor activities. Zhigu 1984 invites well-regarded chefs to its kitchens; for 380 yuan ($56), guests can enjoy a sumptuous tasting menu featuring some of Chongming Island’s gastronomic delights.

    Experiencing a unique minsu, therefore, has become a reason to visit Chongming Island in the first place. However, one of the biggest challenges facing minsu owners everywhere is staying afloat while remaining sustainable. In pursuit of their rural idyll, proprietors have invested their money and time without a second thought for costs, targeting middle-class travelers. This distinguishes minsu in China from those in more developed nations that place greater emphasis on affordability, simplicity, and sustainable development. Minsu entrepreneurs might not be in it for the money, but they still run businesses that need to turn a profit in order to carry on.

    Minsu generally require a lot of startup capital — around 800,000 yuan at least. At the same time, they cater mostly to suburban travelers visiting on weekends or national holidays, leaving them below capacity on most weekdays. The only way to reach most minsu is by driving, since they are rarely accessible by public transport. For these reasons, minsu accommodation is generally pricier than hotels offering similar amenities, and 80 to 90 percent of minsu aren’t making money.

    If the local government is serious about turning Chongming into a world-class ecological site, the island must diversify its existing agricultural lifestyle and embrace a certain amount of tourism. Minsu may yet serve as the bridge that connects the natural ecology with rural tourism. To become profitable, however, it is clear that they must first diversify their sources of income. As yet, the question of how to do so remains unanswered.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: An internal view of a room at Blossom Hill Inn in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, April 21, 2012. Shi Yijun/IC)