By Zhu Hong, China Today

Thanks to the recent travel boom, formally sleepy little ancient towns like Pingyao, Zhouzhuang, Fenghuang and Lijiang have awakened their status as must-see destinations. Millions of tourists from home and abroad have brought these towns fame and fortune, but some feel they may have also taken their traditional tranquility away.

Fenghuang Marred by Over-development

It was a disappointing scene that Qiu Yijiao encountered on her eagerly awaited trip to Fenghuang. As a resident of Beijing, Qiu Yijiao had been looking forward to getting out of the big city and spending some quiet leisure time in this small southern town. Home to the Miao and Tujia ethnic groups, Fenghuang, or literally "Phoenix," is well known for its mix of cultures, a town where time once stood still, preserving life as it had been for over 300 years. Rewi Alley, a well-known writer from New Zealand, called it one of the most beautiful towns in China.

But now the [almost 10-feet-wide] cobblestone streets are overrun by tourists and their guides. The sounds of bargainers and guides' shouting through speakers now fill the air and grate on nerves. Shops along the streets are replete with cheap generic souvenirs that you can buy anywhere. Even more heartbreaking to Qiu was that many of the houses on stilts, the traditional wooden dwellings that line the riverside, have been knocked down to make way for two or three-story brick family inns to accommodate the influx of tourists. Steel-and-cement construction has mushroomed up among the ancient neighborhoods, though concealed under an unconvincing archaic veneer. When the sun goes down, some of the remaining ancient houses became noisy bars, tourist hangouts. "Absolutely different from my expectations," Qiu's mood sounded low, "it's more like a mini Las Vegas."

Throngs of travelers and the ubiquitous commercialism have drained the tranquility from Fenghuang. This phenomenon is affecting many other similar towns, turning folksy locals into shrewd businesspeople, and replacing precious historical sites with faux ancient construction. This is a tragedy that has become a concern for many people intent on protecting the authentic heritage.

Qianyang, Still the Middle of Nowhere

Traveling to the town of Qianyang still requires a difficult four-hour drive along a steep valley road from Fenghuang. Qiu was excited to be able to finally lose herself in this remote town; it compared well with the busy and noisy one she had just left.

In this 2,200-year-old town, the paint covering its wooden houses has long since faded. High white walls, tilted ridges and windows with intricate carvings seem as old as time. The residents are mostly elders, as young people have almost all left their sleepy hometown in search of the opportunities and modern conveniences offered by city life. They still live in the homes built by their great grandfathers, caring for their grandchildren. They live their lives the way they always have, here in their birthplace. They prefer to wash their clothes or vegetables out on the patio, or to play chess and gossip with neighbors in the yard. Qianyang has retained its serenity; rarely are there any signs of commercialism apart from the occasional peddlers hawking their goods.

Situated in steep mountains, Qianyang is out of the reach of modern transportation systems, and the economic prosperity seen in many neighboring areas has passed it over. With low economic activity, the local government can hardly afford to maintain the town the way it would like to. Some of the old buildings teeter on the verge of collapse. Wires poorly installed decades ago now dangle wildly in the streets overhead, dividing the sky like a broken spider's web. Dirty coal is piled in the corner of yards. Locals have knocked down many historical houses, unaware of their intrinsic cultural value.

The emerging travel and leisure market tempts town fathers as they plot a course to develop local tourism. Tourism is the key to Qianyang's survival and development, goes the argument. "The income raised could be used to protect the inherited structures and culture," rationalized Yi Qiming, vice director of the local tourism bureau. "Hard-up residents would be able to earn a stable income renting their old houses once they are restored, bringing renewed attention to a town in decline." However, the restoration costs are daunting, not mention the logistics of reversing the damage done if the town is modernized haphazardly.

Wuzhen Sets Its Own Course

Yi Qiming is beset with a question: how do you save the unique characteristics of a town while developing its tourism potential? To solve it, he began researching several comparable towns.

Wuzhen in East China's Zhejiang Province provided a good case study. It didn't over-exploit its niche advantages or purge all commercial channels. Wuzhen remains a favorite spot for many, and its successful experience has been termed the Wuzhen Model by the United Nations.

It took almost seven years to develop an infrastructure for tourism in the [two-square-mile] town. All electrical and telecom lines had to be buried underground, and construction of a modern sewer system completed. Every household was given a stipend to install indoor plumbing, and the riverbeds were thoroughly dredged. Every element of the ancient streets and structures had to be painstakingly renovated on a case-by-case basis according to historical records. Some restorations were even redone as new source materials were discovered. Management of the project has been systematic and orderly. Commercial boats were fully equipped with all safety devices. Sales of chewing gum were outlawed, and stores were advised to take unique local product lines to maintain regional distinction. "Other towns aim solely on developing tourism, but for us it is only a means to an end," said Chen Xianghong, president of Wuzhen Tourism Development Co., Ltd. "I want to create a town that is appealing as a tourist-friendly dwelling area."

"Detailed and integrated planning is necessary for protecting and developing these ancient towns," said Dai Bin, deputy director of the China Tourism Academy. In fact, the planning referred not only to the restoration of old buildings, but also to many issues that arise during the post-development and operations period; raising capital, attracting investment, relocating residents and managing operating costs are all part of the picture.

Qianyang recently invited several tourism specialists and experts in history and folk customs to discuss its current plan. "Forming a good strategy, executing it efficiently, and preserving the town during the development – these are all difficult tasks," said Yi. "But we have been making efforts to resolve them to everyone's satisfaction."

After wandering around Qianyang, Qiu Yijiao began to fall in love with this quaint little town. "Let's see if I feel the same when I return in a couple of years. My hope is that the pace of development is such that this area remains all it has been in the past."

Source: China Today www.chinatoday.com.cn

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