China tourism: mixed blessing

Tension: Domestic and foreign visitors will bring profit and profound change to China's cultural and natural heritage sites.

July 02, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WALNUT GROVE, China - The first thing that strikes visitors to Tiger Leaping Gorge is its sheer size. Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, the chasm plunges more than two vertical miles from the serrated peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain into the churning rapids of the Yangtze River.

More spectacular and more remote than the famous Three Gorges, the area opened to foreign tourists - mostly backpackers - in 1993. Today, travelers can still hike in relative solitude, chatting with villagers and stopping to rinse their heads in the waterfalls that pour down the limestone and granite walls.

In the next several years, all of that will almost certainly change.

Local officials plan to carve a trail across the gorge's eastern wall, which includes a giant stone monolith larger than Yosemite National Park's 3,600-foot El Capitan. Across the river, officials from a competing county have blown through a road that they hope to pave.

Buses carrying an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 tourists annually are expected to follow, altering one of the most tranquil and spectacular spots in China.

"Tiger Leaping Gorge is an adventure area," says Xia Shanquan, who goes by the name Sean and runs a rustic guesthouse in the middle of the gorge. "With two roads, it's not an adventure."

Tourism, foreign and domestic, is exploding across the world's most populous country. Tiger Leaping Gorge appears to be among the next casualties.

Cashing in on tourists

Armed for the first time with disposable income, China's emerging middle class is hitting the road in unprecedented numbers. Local officials and entrepreneurs are trying to cash in by turning some of the nation's cultural and natural heritage sites into amusement parks.

Visitors to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall can ride up to one of the great wonders of the world in a chairlift or cable car and careen back down along an alpine slide more than a mile long.

Competition between transport companies became so fierce at Mutianyu that one built metal barriers in April to keep another's customers from climbing onto the wall.

Beijing's Old Summer Palace looks more like a seedy midway than the imperial, garden resort it was in its glory days.

Attractions include bumper cars and what appears to be a hybrid of a Polynesian village and a Western frontier fort with totem poles.

Profit and preservation

Few people more clearly illustrate the tension between profit and preservation in China than Tiger Leaping Gorge's competing hoteliers, Sean and Woody. Distant cousins who grew up in the gorge, the pair take starkly different approaches to economic development and occasional potshots at each other's business practices.

Sean, a self-styled hippie in graying, shoulder-length hair and hiking boots, favors moderate development in keeping with the surroundings. He opened Sean's Spring Lodge in the early 1980s. Although he has expanded his business to 35 beds, his buildings retain elements of the local architectural style, including whitewashed walls and carved wooden balconies.

Sean, whose Chinese name means Summer Mountain Spring, vehemently opposes the road and has pleaded with local officials not to pave it.

"Many backpackers say if they put on tar, they won't come back again," he says, as a Jeep Cherokee rolls by, kicking up clouds of yellow dust.

Woody, who wears a blue, pinstriped shirt buttoned to the neck, plays Donald Trump to Sean's Jerry Garcia. He runs a group of guesthouses known collectively as Chateau de Woody.

This year, he built a boxy, four-story "guesthouse" with tinted blue glass, a style repeated ad nauseam in cities across China. The building lies in Walnut Grove, a natural amphitheater of terraced fields where travelers can gaze up 10,000 feet into the snow-capped mountains of southwest China. Backpackers and locals gave the area an English name so it would sound more familiar and appealing to foreigners.

The new structure is the aesthetic equivalent of a low-rise apartment block at the foot of the Grand Canyon. Woody, whose real name is Mu Chongjun, has contracts with at least 25 tour agencies. He sees the new road as a potential gold mine.

Asked whether the expected flood of tour buses might adversely affect the atmosphere, he seems almost surprised by the question.

In addition to making him lots of money, the road should make Tiger Leaping Gorge safer and more convenient, he says. In the past decade, falling rocks, bandits and dehydration have killed travelers along the trails.

"I think the road is good for both villagers and tourists," says Woody, who picked up his English name from an American who thought his personality resembled that of Woody Allen. "Tourists don't have to die from thirst and hunger."

Consumer holiday

Tiger Leaping Gorge takes its name from a section so narrow that legend says a tiger could leap across it. Two months ago, visitors got a glimpse of the bottleneck that awaits.

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