Tourism Trap: How Long Can China’s Rural Travel Boom Last?
This June, while I was conducting fieldwork in Lanling County in the northeastern province of Shandong, local government officials took me to visit a nearby tourism-based poverty alleviation program. In 2016, Yayougou Village — the program’s core area — was singled out by the central government for praise. Home to 276 villagers, almost 25 percent of them are classified as “impoverished.”
The tourism-based poverty alleviation model used in Yayougou Village is not complicated: The county government takes the village’s land and leases it out to a private company — in this case, the Kaiyuan Real Estate Development Company — to be used for tourism purposes. This company is then held financially responsible for the construction of new homes and the resettlement of all village residents.
When I first heard about the idea, I wasn’t entirely sold. It was explained to me that once the area is redeveloped and open to tourists, the managing company provides a fixed annual cash income to any households below the poverty line — in Shandong, this includes households earning less than 3,372 yuan ($500) per person a year. In addition, the company is also obligated to provide every villager with basic medical insurance and retirement insurance worth 500 yuan a year, and villagers over 60 are entitled to 60 yuan a month for staples such as rice, flour, and oil.
Local officials were effusive in their praise for the project, telling me that it was good not just for business, but for the local government and villagers as well. According to the official line, the company profits from running the scenic area; villagers get jobs in fields such as sanitation, security, and catering — and earn much more than they could growing chestnuts — and the government can help lift the poor out of poverty while also securing a steady stream of tax revenue.
But the whole model depends on the area being able to attract enough tourists — otherwise there’s not enough money to split between the company, villagers, and government. This is currently the case in Yayougou: There are not enough visitors for the company’s operations there to be profitable — although the scenic area is still partially under construction, and visitor numbers may increase when it is finished.
The Chinese government considers poverty alleviation an issue of vital national importance and has set the goal of lifting the entire country out of poverty by 2020. In order to meet this target, officials have undertaken a wide range of development initiatives nationwide. Developing an area’s tourism resources is a particular favorite: In Lanling County alone there are 49 impoverished villages, 13 of which are working on tourism-related anti-poverty initiatives.
There are several reasons tourism makes an attractive option for local governments looking to reduce poverty figures. First of all, China's rural tourism market is growing rapidly. According to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), in 2016 1.36 billion tourists visited China's countryside — an average of one visit per person in the country. Together, CASS researchers estimated that the tourists spent 400 billion yuan on these trips.
China's rural tourism boom is expected to grow over the next 10 years, reaching nearly 3 billion visits in 2025. Meanwhile, the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) determined that the tourism industry would lift 17 percent of China’s impoverished population out of poverty by 2020.
Compared with other industries, tourism has a relatively low barrier for entry, and such projects produce quick results while also boosting employment. Construction on the Yayougou Village tourism poverty alleviation project — which began in 2016 — is already essentially finished and the park partially open to the public. According to government materials, in just these two years, the program has provided 220 impoverished residents from Yayougou and four surrounding villages with jobs.
But local governments’ embrace of tourism has been driven as much by political considerations as anything else. At the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, the Party highlighted the importance of environmental protection to national development. China has since strengthened environmental enforcement mechanisms, and in 2016 set up central environmental protection inspection teams to supervise conservation efforts.
In 2017, the official report of the 19th National Congress noted that the country “must realize that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets and act on this understanding.” Under pressure to boost incomes while also conserving the environment — or at least avoiding more conspicuous forms of environmental degradation — local officials have found tourism to be a politically safe option, as well as an easy way to get financial support from higher authorities. In Lanling County, 13 villages were listed among the country’s 1,000 national tourism village poverty-relief projects, and the area had received 65 million yuan in national poverty alleviation funds.
There are plenty of advantages to using tourism as a means to fight poverty. But with so many villages around the country jumping on the bandwagon, there are also reasons for concern.
First of all, with so many villages all following identical development models, it is difficult for newly developed destinations to stand out from the crowd. Currently, tourism-centric poverty alleviation projects almost all rely on some combination of rustic scenery and dining, drinking, and shopping establishments to attract city dwellers looking for a break from urban life.
Take Yayougou Village for example. With the local economy now centered on tourism, local farmers have started decorating their farmhouses in a more rustic style, developing leisure tourism-oriented agriculture activities, and offering hospitality services. The area also boasts common features such as an imitation ancient street, some nice mountain views, and a museum.
Early on, this model was successful for luring in tourists from cities who had never experienced country life. But now, with seemingly every village creating its own, nearly identical tourism attractions, its appeal is no longer quite so clear.
The second problem is that outside companies usually take the lead in these tourism projects, potentially marginalizing local residents in the process. In Yayougou, officials claim that Kaiyuan’s investment has benefitted many — improving their living standards and lifting residents out of poverty. But at the same time, the villagers have also made sacrifices: Not only did they move away from their original homes and lose their land, they also lost what ability they had to determine their village’s future.
Finally, alleviating poverty through tourism initiatives often requires huge upfront investments of capital, which can lead to serious debt problems. The project I visited in Yayougou Village cost 450 million yuan for the first phase alone, of which 300 million yuan came from loans. This poses a challenge to the future long-term profitability of the project.
Tourism projects have done a lot of good for rural communities, but they also involve real risks. For rural tourism to be sustainable, the central government must take a more active role in its supervision. Only those villages with true tourism potential should be developed — as opposed to the current situation, where any village that wants to can try to develop itself into a tourist attraction. The government must also ensure the rights of villagers to participate in village decision-making processes, and should keep a watchful eye on the businesses investing in these areas — and their official partners — to ensure they are protecting the interests of the residents.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
This article was funded by the Sixth Tone Fellowship. In 2018, Sixth Tone sponsored eight young scholars to come to China for a six-week research trip to conduct fieldwork in eight provinces all over the country.
(Header image: A view of a homestay hotel in Yayougou Village, Shandong province, June 21, 2018. Fu Danni/Sixth Tone)