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Mission impossible? Using tourism to close the rural-urban gap

By 13 June 2009 2 Comments
Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

Spin cycle: Locals await a tourist boom in Nuanxuan township | Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

The village of Nuanxuan is just a three-hour bus ride to the west of sprawling, modern Beijing, but once the single paved road leading to this community of 16,000 ends, most contemporary comforts end with it. Uneven dirt roads swallow tires whole after a good rain, laundry is hand-washed in a concrete reservoir in the center of town and bright storefront billboards starkly contrast with the sharp odors wafting from 300-year-old outhouses across the way.

But according to Zhang Wenbo, the town’s mayor, Nuanxuan is on its way up in the world. In late 2005, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development identified the town as one of 85 towns and 72 villages across China that are in need of funding to preserve both ancient buildings and local culture and improve basic infrastructure. The initiative also features an attempt to increase the flow of tourist dollars to rural towns to improve the standard of living, an effort unthinkable before China opened its doors to foreign tourists in 1978.

When our group of 15 journalism students visited this ancient town, inhabited for over two millennia, on a recent rainy afternoon, it was clear it faces two distinct challenges. First, the ongoing flight from rural areas to cities continues in China, with droves of workers from the countryside townships such as Nuanxuan flooding urban areas looking for jobs. Second, striking the right balance between development and cultural preservation will likely prove a delicate if improbable task.

Already, modernity manifests itself in satellite dishes perched atop cracked roofs with sprouting plants and power lines dangling beneath the eaves but appearances can be deceptive. Mayor Zhang said the town first got electricity and phones 15 years ago, but they are still not ubiquitous and many of the homes have not been renovated in hundreds of years.

Nuanxuan received the first half of an 8.8 million yuan (USD 1.28 million) government subsidy last year, most of which Zhang said was going to be used on basic infrastructure. The infusion is a small part of a total 980 million yuan (USD 143.3 million) the Chinese government has allocated for its national program. Throughout Nuanxuan, stacks of bricks and men laying PVC pipe beneath the roadway hinted that the infrastructure development of which Zhang spoke proceeds, albeit at something of a glacial pace.

When we spoke with Zhang in his local government office, with its curtained windows and shiny floors, the mayor acknowledged the town’s developmental challenges, but asserted that the people’s love for village life would defeat the lure of higher incomes and modern convenience available elsewhere. “The difference here is young people love their hometown more,” said Zhang. “Most people working outside eventually come back.”

Yet as long as the average yearly income for Nuanxuan residents is a tenth of what it is in Beijing – roughly 3,800 yuan (USD 556) compared to 39,867 yuan (USD 5,835) in the big city, the gap is likely to be far too great for many people to ignore. Government statistics indicate that the population of Nuanxuan has remained relatively static over the past decade, while Yuxian, the nearest city, has grown steadily. Zhang said that some people like the city life, while others prefer the more peaceful existence of village life. “Some people are just very good at being peasants,” he said.

After our meeting with Zhang, during which he repeatedly invited us to return to personally witness the leaps and bounds the town would be taking in becoming a tourist hotspot, he invited us to join him and a few other government officials for lunch. As we sat around sampling the local delicacies, some continued to talk with Zhang about the problems the town faces. Upon hearing he had a son, one of our group asked about his son’s plans for the future.

“He wants to live in New York,” said Zhang.

Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia

Old comrades: Village couple cultivate their garden | Photo by Dawn Jones-Garcia


  • Bob said:

    “Some people are just very good at being peasants,”

    True, true…

  • Carol Ascue said:

    The last sentence tells it all. While the elders have hopes and dreams for the future of their town village the ones who could best participate in working toward this flee. I wonder what real changes meet the gaze of returning young people. Perhaphs the pull of family will be strong enough.
    Local pride can delight in minute accomplishments.

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