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    Is China’s Rural Tourism Push Sustainable?

    After two decades of investment in infrastructure and industry, the country has declared victory against rural poverty, but revitalizing rural areas might require a different strategy.

    China’s rural development drive is at a crossroads. Over the past two decades, authorities at both the central and local levels have invested a huge quantity of resources into the “revitalization” of the countryside. Yet, the results in some cases have not met expectations, as newly built cottage industries have proved unsustainable and unable to meet local residents’ needs.

    China launched several “rural revitalization” campaigns over the past decade to help rejuvenate its economically stagnant rural areas. Deeming traditional, small-scale agriculture inadequate for the demands of modern development, local officials nationwide partnered with outside enterprises and capital to reshape the economies of entire villages, often emphasizing a single, signature industry such as tourism.

    Y Village — I am not identifying the place to protect the identity of my research participants — is an ordinary village in central China. In the mid-2010s, Y Village was selected as a pilot site for a major rural revitalization campaign, after which it received almost 60 million yuan (now $9.3 million) in funding from various government levels. Local officials chose to concentrate these resources on developing rural tourism resources, partnering with an outside enterprise to develop the village into an agritourism site and incentivizing farmers to invest in “agritainment” venues such as restaurants and the bed and breakfast-esque establishments known as nongjiale.

    As part of this strategy, Y Village leased a large portion of village land to its private sector partner for 10 years and spent more than 30 million yuan on new facilities for tourists like a scenic road and a visitor center.

    Over the next several years, however, the tourism project hemorrhaged money. Y Village hasn’t attracted many tourists, and those who have visited tended to be individual day-trippers from surrounding areas who rarely ate or stayed in the village. The businesses the government had pushed locals to set up struggled to stay afloat, and some farmers were forced to close up shop and either return to farming or else look for work in the city.

    In addition to leasing farmland to outside companies long term, Y Village’s resources are increasingly skewed toward tourism projects. A river running through the village was selected to be the centerpiece of the local tourism industry, so now the county government operates the reservoir upstream with water rides and other recreational activities in mind. As less water is released, farmland irrigation has been seriously affected.

    Y Village epitomizes some of the challenges China faces as it attempts to revitalize rural areas. Local governments have prioritized large-scale land management and developing large agricultural or industrial enterprises with the aim of concentrating and coordinating village resources to develop certain industries and achieve economies of scale. The potential payoff is immense: Once an industry reaches a certain size, it becomes easier for officials to lobby for more resources and investment from higher levels of government.

    But as this strategy has been replicated across the country, villages run the risk of overlooking unique local conditions and needs.

    The nationwide tourism development push offers many examples. Although villages large and small have tried to follow in the footsteps of a few early success stories and develop themselves into playgrounds for urbanites, only a few — those close to famous scenic spots or large cities — have realized a return on their investment. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of rural tourism spots has saturated the market. Local government officials I spoke to believe that one reason Y Village has struggled to attract visitors is because the surrounding countryside is full of almost identical tourism villages.

    There is no need to hastily concentrate village resources or chase after colossal gains. Instead of discarding small-scale farming for instance, smallholder farms could be embraced as a source of stability and security for rural Chinese. Although China is rapidly urbanizing, it remains in a transitional phase, and large numbers of urban migrants continue to need footholds in their rural hometowns. This model has been crucial in helping China weather challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic or demographic aging by giving rural Chinese locked out of the urban social security system a much-needed fallback. If rural farmland is consolidated and leased out to companies for long periods, however, it will no longer be able to absorb excess labor.

    Rather than chasing after large-scale transformations, rural development initiatives should focus on improving agricultural infrastructure to make farming more convenient and productive. For example, at the moment, the land owned by many farmers is fragmented and inefficiently farmed. If the government can integrate these fragmented plots, improve irrigation, and better maintain agricultural infrastructure, this will raise farming efficiency and improve farmers’ lives.

    In short, the construction and development of China’s countryside needs to give greater weight to the interests of farmers rather than developers. Instead of replicating the centralized strategy of specialization and industrial development which leaves villages overly dependent on a single industry, it is more economically efficient to identify development paths that meet the needs of villagers and suit the local environment.

    Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Villagers perform for tourists at a tea farm in Yichang, Hubei province, 2018. Zhang Guorong/People Visual)