Written by Richard Abrahams.

China’s domestic tourism market has been growing year on year, and with many of China’s scenic spots located in central and western areas, tourism has given a much needed shot in the arm to rural economies that have, during the reform period, lagged pathetically behind urban areas. Charged with nationalist narratives, China’s tourism now adopts a nostalgic tone allowing the masses to tread the footsteps once trodden by the literati. In the countryside during the 1980s, tourism was first developed under the guise of Poverty Alleviation through Tourism (PAT), which allowed farmers to earn supplementary income through the provision of services and goods produced through household manufacture. By the 1990s, the successes of PAT encouraged many provincial governments to incorporate tourism as a development policy to not only alleviate poverty, but to attract investment and raise awareness and prestige.

For Provinces such as Guizhou, tourism has become a pillar industry and is a vital means to opening up places that are remote, unproductive and poverty stricken. The Miao villages in the borderlands with Guangxi in Southern Guizhou’s Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture(黔东南苗族侗族自治州) are one such example. It currently takes two days of arduous bus travel from Guilin or Guiyang, that requires several changes in dusty industrial transit towns, before arriving in the sumptuous paddy-cloaked mountains that are beginning to attract tourists to the area’s remote villages. Like all the settlements in the area, one village in which I have recently been doing fieldwork on a nascent tourism economy, is poor. The houses adorning the mud-tracked streets are all pine stilt houses in which animals are kept on the ground floor, with the living area on the first. There is no sewage system and water is siphoned directly from the mountains. In the winter these places are cold and soot from open fires blackens the living areas. Although there are a couple of houses that are allowed to receive guests, the remote rural reality for most is untouched. The local population is largely subsistence farmers, spending the winter months in Guangdong cutting cane before returning to plant a single annual crop of rice in the spring. Education levels are low, people rarely escape the village, making the arable existence intensely localised.

But things are changing, fast. A seemingly impossible road and rail network is soon to be completed; creating a travel network that scythes through the egg-carton landscape. Consequently journey times will be slashed and officials are already preparing for a tourist influx. More ethnic minority villages and landscapes will be added to tour group itineraries that have, during the last two decades transformed many rural ethnic minority villages in the better connected northern Guangxi to the south. More communities will be subject to the gaze of tourists, coloured by governmental narratives that paint the exotic locals as traditional, primitive people tied to the rhythms of nature.

Before the masses arrive, these villages are being opened up by a relatively new domestic trend; landscape photography tourism. Leading the way are hardy and affluent groups of wealthy, elderly tourists with time, and money. These retired cadres, officials, lawyers and teachers have been first-hand witnesses to contemporary China’s changes. Many of them were sent to the countryside and lived through starvation and hardships during the Cultural Revolution. Last year whilst staying in the mountain villages I met several groups, and they explained to me they visit such places because of the naturalness of both place and people. Aware that villages like this will soon become subject to the next influx of tourists, they want to get there first and capture it on film – before it disappears. Their journeys are characterised by the modern condition of longing for the past, for a simpler, more “authentic” time that is passing by in China’s rapidly urbanising landscape.

Classical Chinese thought sees nature and humankind in a harmonious relationship. Daosim teaches that people are an integral part of the natural world and should follow nature’s patterns and rhythms, respecting it for optimal physical and moral well-being. Humans and nature have traditionally been perceived to be in a relationship that is mutually beneficial, each one healing, adorning, improving the other in an unbreakable relationship. Nature is part of man in as much as man is a part of nature. Natural landscapes are sources of nature’s essential energy (qi), mountains and rivers physical reminders of the insignificance of man in the wider natural cosmos. This relationship has been a constant theme in traditional Chinese landscape art and poetry; nature as the eternal healer, the refuge of those in need of inspiration or healing, a place for renewal and revitalisation.

It seems however, that these bonds may be becoming unsettled. Many urban tourists no longer feel connected to nature, instead they reflect disquiet and awareness of the human role in environmental degradation and pollution.

It is no wonder that the elderly photographers that I met feel such nostalgic yearning. I spent a week in Shanghai with a photography group I met during a trip to Guizhou, and as they showed me around the city it was clear that nothing was left, aside from the ghosts of the fields, houses, streets, streams and squares they once played, courted and lived in. They are trace-less underneath the infrastructural mass of metal and concrete that characterises China’s new urban landscapes. China’s rapidly transforming urban landscapes appear to be exciting an emerging ground shift in the ways in which Chinese tourists view their relationship with nature.

Globalisation of course plays its own role, the human/nature dualism that has characterised the West since the Renaissance is drip fed unequally through cultural interaction. Popular global imagery delights in nature untouched where the damaging human hand is removed. China’s urbanites may still have a spiritual connection, longing often for time spent in natural areas and taking delight in natural environments, but this is a nature disconnected; they are no longer part of it. The photographers I met showed me the images from National Geographic and Chinese National Geographic (中国国家地理) that they try to emulate.

These factors are colouring new trends that are emerging in China’s domestic tourism market. At the opposite age scale from the photography groups I met in Guizhou, and outside of the tour group masses, independent travel is emerging. Rural Youth Hostels and guesthouses, which just ten years ago were dominated by foreign backpackers and domestic artists and intellectuals, are now filled by a rapidly emerging group of university graduates and students. Brought up in the cities, these youngsters are more willing to venture beyond the confines of organised tours and experience nature in a more intimate way, spending time in the countryside and interacting with rural people. Rural tourism is bolstered through the appeal of outbound pursuits such as hiking, which is growing in popularity from a young population to whom the rural represents an exotic departure from the cities where they have spent their whole lives.

Recent trends in tourist consumer habits suggest that the protection of natural and arable landscapes can bolster the economic development of China’s more rural provinces. But, this glimmer of hope for the environmentally inclined is beset by the dichotomy that those who are targeted by tourism, those ethnic minorities who are seen as representing the traditional connectivity between nature and human, hope that development offers a route away from arable life. The challenge for the government will be to convince those, who tourist discourses target, to stay in the villages when the wealth comes, continue to farm and not to down tools once the tourists arrive.

Richard Abrahams is a PhD student in the Department of Geography, University of Hong Kong.

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