Tourism, Slow Travel & Little Yak

I haven’t written about this before, but my trip to Guizhou earlier this month did not turn out as expected. On my previous two trips to Zhaoxing, I had seen signs that the village was being developed as a tourist site. On the same trips, the beauty of the village and the quiet way that life continued there left a deep impression on me, and I felt that the village would soon be changed beyond recognition when the tourist buses started to arrive. So, I went back a third time to take photographs and to write about life there as it is now.

As a tour guide, I’ve seen the impact of tourism in lots of different places around China. It’s difficult to generalise about the impact that these developments have on the host communities, but I’d like to offer two examples from my personal experience:

Yuanyang Rice Terraces, Yunnan

Yuanyang Rice Terraces, Yunnan © Jo James

Several years ago, at Yunnan’s Yuanyang Rice Terraces, the growing number of photographers flocking to photograph the dramatic terraces attracted the attention of a state-owned company from the provincial capital, Kunming. The company invested substantially in building a large viewing platform, a ticket booth and a guarded barrier around the complex. The local Hani minority people (the original builders of the rice terraces), who used to sell eggs and souvenirs to visitors waiting to watch the sunrise, are no longer allowed to enter. Visitors arrive by coach or car, drive into the parking lot, take photos and leave, while Hani people try to continue their trade by offering eggs through the fence, cut off from any other way of benefitting from the sudden boom in tourism.

Miao Cultural Performance, Xijiang, Guizhou

Miao Cultural Performance, Xijiang, Guizhou   © Jo James

A few hours’ drive from Zhaoxing, in the Miao minority village of Xijiang, the development has taken a different direction. At the entrance to the village, a large platform has been constructed. Every day, people from the village dress in their festival clothing, and head to the platform to dance (well, sway in time) and welcome visitors to the village. Visitors are greeted with dancing, music and a drink of rice wine – as though it were a festival day, then board a golf buggy to reach the village itself. Once in the Xijiang, you can watch a cultural show, shop, drink rice wine and sing karaoke. It’s a pleasant experience (at least until the karaoke starts), but also one that has rewritten Miao customs and traditions whole to make them more palatable for visitors.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I went to Zhaoxing, hoping to see it before the ticket barriers are installed and the karaoke begins, and expecting to write about a unique way of life that was about to disappear.

Sticky Rice, Zhaoxing

Sticky Rice, Zhaoxing © Jo James

Over Chinese New Year, migrant workers from all over the country return home. In Zhaoxing, it seemed that almost all young people move away – mostly to Guangdong – to work until they needed to return to care for their parents. In Zhaoxing there are too few jobs available, none of them lucrative. Its remote location means that, unless Zhaoxing can create jobs by reinventing itself as a tourist destination, this pattern will continue and this will alter life in the village far more irrevocably than the kind of development that Xijiang has undergone. So it seems as though Zhaoxing faces a choice between adapting to tourists’ tastes or watching traditions slowly die out anyway generations of young people head for the cities. One migrant worker from Tang’an (a tiny hillside village near Zhaoxing) told me, “Our hope is with you tourists.” The village will change either way, but tourism might actually be the lesser of two evils…

Which brings me to Little Yak. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I added a strapline to the site last week: ‘Slow Travel in China’. Slow travel is a new term for an old way of travelling. Among many other things – including, apparently seriously, travelling by donkey – slow travel is about finding a more sympathetic way to travel, doing things in a way that benefits you as well as the places you visit and the communities you travel amongst. It’s about enjoying experiences over ticking off ‘must-sees’, and trying to understand the part of the world that you find yourself in, how it works and why it is the way it is. To me, it seems like this kind of travel is a way to help rural places like Zhaoxing navigate their way to a brighter future with more of their customs and culture intact.

What I hope to do through the Little Yak website is to share stories, tips and photographs from my own slow-ish travels around China. Later this year, I will organise some quick slow journeys for small groups – experience-filled journeys for people with limited holiday leave (hello Hong Kongers). I’m currently working on two itineraries, one for this spring, one for September. Details coming up soon – I just have to work out whether or not to include the donkeys. 🙂

P.S. If you want to read more about slow travel, then I recommend this article – one of the first to define slow travel a few years ago.

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