2017-11-13 12:34:54

In response to a scathing report on hostels misleading customers with false advertising, one of China’s two UNESCO World Heritage towns has said it will implement a zero-tolerance policy for any activity that infringes on tourists’ rights.

The government of Lijiang, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, made the declaration on Sunday — the day after state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) accused two hostels in the city of immoral business practices. According to its statement, the government has ordered the two hostels to close, pending an official investigation.

CCTV reported Saturday that one man who had reserved accommodation at a highly rated hostel in Lijiang through Meituan, an all-purpose booking website, found the room messy and completely different from how it was advertised in photos online. In addition, when he complained to staff about the number of mosquitoes in the room, he was told that the insects were “pets,” and that killing one would result in a 100 yuan ($15) fine.

An undercover investigation at a second hostel found that it, too, provided false information online, such as poorly calculated distances from major tourist sites and misleading descriptions of rooms, facilities, and general amenities.

“That’s just the way bed-and-breakfasts look in this town — if the facilities were any nicer, this would be a hotel and not a hostel,” an unnamed staff member at one of the hostels told CCTV’s reporter. They added that managers at some hostels ask their staff to create fake bookings and write disingenuous reviews online to boost popularity.

Some businesses, the staff member explained, would even force customers to give them a high rating when they checked out — anyone who refused might find themselves pestered by repeated phone calls from hostel staff “reminding” them to submit a review.

By Sunday, Meituan had removed the two hostels named in the CCTV report from its website.

Lijiang, located near the border with Myanmar in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, has become one of China’s most popular scenic getaways since its old town was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. With its diverse cultures, abundant natural beauty, and Silk Road legacy, the city attracted more than 35 million tourists last year, up from just 16 million in 2012. On the first day of October’s Golden Week holiday, over 30,000 people visited the old town area.

The influx of visitors has become a major driving force behind the local economy, with tourism-related businesses accounting for over half of the city’s gross domestic product. The number of hostels in the city tripled from 2012 to 2016, to a total of around 3,000.

While most visitors come to Lijiang for a peaceful or romantic escape from the chaos of urban life, some seem to think that the place has lost its identity while being swept along by the tide of commercialization.

Weibo microblog user Suhangxi, who used her online handle when speaking to Sixth Tone because of privacy concerns, said she, for one, would not be returning to Lijiang for a second visit after the bad impression the town had left on her. When she and her friends visited in late October, they hired a car from a local travel agency to take them to Lugu Lake, a scenic spot around five hours’ drive from the city. But their driver kicked them out of the car when they were just halfway to their destination. “He was upset because we refused an additional service of traveling around the lake in his car,” Suhangxi explained.

Even to people who have never set foot in Lijiang, the city’s reputation has suffered, with headlines of visitors being taken advantage of frequently grabbing headlines. In November 2016, a female tourist in Lijiang was brutally beaten by a group of men at a barbeque restaurant, suffering severe facial wounds. Not until she posted about her experience online several months later did the local police speed up their investigation. Following the incident, the National Tourism Administration handed the city a formal warning. The previous year, the city received a similar warning for its generally poor treatment of tourists, who were often cheated or coerced into spending money.

“Developers in Lijiang know little about the theory of old town development and planning — they only care about the profits driven by tourism,” Tripvivid, a media outlet focusing on tourism in China, concluded in one of its articles. In considering the changing landscape of Lijiang’s hospitality industry over the past 20 years, the report noted that the lack of official oversight over hostels in the old town would be an impediment to protecting traditional culture there.

For some of the Lijiang’s hostel owners, Saturday’s CCTV report has given them a chance to reflect on their businesses. “We sincerely hope that Lijiang will return to order,” commented one hostel on its Weibo account. “To all the unscrupulous merchants: Please stop tarnishing Lijiang’s image.”

Suhangxi, who was eventually able to take in the pristine scenery at Lugu Lake despite her unpleasant ride, also wishes Lijiang the best. “Apart from the natural beauty, I think the most important part of a tourist destination is the people there,” she said.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: An aerial view of tourist accommodations in Lijiang, Yunnan province, Feb. 9, 2015. Xu Dong/VCG)