Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blanding China’s Paradise

In the spirit of looking at the diversity of the country, I thought a visit to one of China’s less developed provinces, Yunnan, might be in order. I came across an interesting commentary recently in the SMH – When you live in Shangri-La, you don't want a highway to your door

Yunnan is the most south western province in China, with the Tropic of Cancer running through its southern part. The province has an area of 394,000 square km, 4.1 percent of the nation's total.

The province borders the Tibet Autonomous Region in the northwest. It shares a border of 4,060 km with Myanmar in the west, Laos in the south, and Vietnam in the southeast.

The province is home to around 25 recognised ethnic minorities, including Tibetans. In the spirit of modernisation the central government is keen to develop tourism in the region. In fact the stress seems to be on ‘Hanification’ or bringing the diversity into the majority fold.

Beijing officially rebranded the nearby Tibetan town of Gyalthang (Zhongdian in Chinese) as the mythical "Shangri-La" in 2001. Regardless of ecological or cultural sensitivities the town was turned into a tourist trap.

An influx of Han Chinese officials and business people and often unsympathetic development, including karaoke clubs, oversized hotels and prostitution are the accepted models for bringing these unique areas into the fold.

Some towns are resisting or looking for more amenable developments. One of the poorest villages neighbouring the Napa Lake nature reserve, Hamagu, signed up to a WWF-sponsored eco-tourism program, villagers' incomes have doubled to 1000 yuan ($A145) a year.

No great income jump perhaps, but these people are far more intent on protecting their heritage. Small groups of tourists are welcomed, and well managed by this community. Other towns in the region have allowed larger developments, but the trend generally seems to keep things manageable.

The dominant Han culture is making its mark in places, devouring cultures in its wake. But generally they are probably busy enough to ignore those who choose to go it alone, find alternatives to bland development. Growth might be the mantra elsewhere in China, but it certainly isn’t universal.

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