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Tourism drying up

Villagers washing clothes near a traditional roofed-bridge in
            Liping county. Such bridges are a common sight in the Dong villages of
            Guizhou province in Southwest China. Erik Nilsson / China Daily

Villagers washing clothes near a traditional roofed-bridge in Liping county. Such bridges are a common sight in the Dong villages of Guizhou province in Southwest China. Erik Nilsson / China Daily 

An industry that provided a buffer from the drought in Guizhou, is slowly seeing a fall in visitor numbers.

Lu Xingtao says she hasn't felt the impact of living in one of Guizhou province's most severely drought-stricken counties.

That's because Liping's emergent tourism industry has afforded the 27-year-old ethnic Dong, and many other villagers in Jintang, greater independence from the rule of the planting season.

"Now, I sing and play pipa to entertain visitors rather than farming, so I don't notice the drought's influence in my life," she says.

Lu says that tourism has not only protected her from the impact of the drought but also has helped preserve local customs.

"We don't need to become migrant workers anymore," says the singer, who previously worked in textile factories in big cities.

Lu earns several hundred yuan more per month than she did as a migrant worker, she says. "Now, we can stay here and preserve our traditional way of life."

But while Guizhou's travel industry has largely shielded Jintang's 2,000 residents from the impact of the worst drought in six decades, the drought is now causing the number of tourists visiting the region to start evaporating.

Guizhou's tourism had undergone double-digit growth until April, when the drought caused the stream of visitors to begin drying up, the provincial tourism bureau's director Fu Yingchun says.

"Some travelers are deciding against coming here because they believe the drought might create poor conditions," Liping's tourism bureau director Zhang Yongxian explains.

"Also, local people had to undertake responsive measures to mitigate the drought's impact, which detracted from their work hosting visitors."

Zhang says that the county, where tourist numbers have grown 20 to 25 percent annually since 2003, is a microcosm of the province in terms of the drought's impact on travel.

 

Longli town, in Guizhou's lushly forested
            east, is yet to feel the full impact of the drought. Erik Nilsson /
            China Daily

Longli town, in Guizhou's lushly forested east, is yet to feel the full impact of the drought. Erik Nilsson / China Daily 

While the provincial figures for 2010 haven't yet been released, Guizhou's tourism brought in 80.5 billion yuan ($11.8 billion) last year, a 23 percent increase over 2008. About 104 million tourists visited the province in 2009, up 27.5 percent year-on-year, government figures show.

Hardest hit has been western Guizhou, where the drought is more severe. Visits to the area decreased by 40 percent year-on-year, Fu says, without revealing last year's figures. The number of tourists traveling to Tianlong Tunbao village, a major attraction 50 km outside of the provincial capital Guiyang, has dropped by 70 percent compared to 2009, Fu says.

Even Guizhou's lushly forested east, where the drought is less severe, has also received fewer travelers. Libo village's tourist inflow has shrunk by 10 percent, while numbers have also dropped in Leishan and Xijiang, he explains.

But Fu insists most tourists' concerns about scenery, services and comfort are unfounded or exaggerated. Part of the problem, he says, is that many online media have "falsely reported" that the iconic Huangguoshu Waterfall - Asia's largest - has "run completely dry".

The provincial government is now introducing measures to reinvigorate tourism.

From April 20 until May 31, two in 10 tour group members can travel for free, as can one in 10 lone travelers. 2010 World Expo ticket holders can enjoy 300 yuan to 500 yuan off travel routes from July 1 to Dec 1, and get 50 percent off all attractions in Guiyang from May 1 to Dec 31.

In addition, the government will attend the tourism exchange meeting in Chongqing in early May. And it will create a conspicuous presence at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, targeting both foreigners and East China residents.

Pan Peihua, an 18-year-old ethnic Dong woman, will be among nine young Xiaohuang villagers to perform in the Dong Grand Chorus, for which the ethnic group is famous, at the Expo in Shanghai.

Pan has already visited France and accompanied Premier Wen Jiabao to Japan with the performance troupe.

However, as many of the attractions most affected are in villages, Guizhou's marketing will focus on the countryside.

"Rural tourism will be a key point of our programs to help farmers cope with the losses caused by the drought," he says.

Although the drought has had little environmental impact in Jintang - mostly because of government countermeasures, such as providing free water - it has resulted in a decrease in the number of visitors. The exact figures aren't yet available.

The industry accounts for 10 percent of the county's GDP. The 930,000 visitors, including 30,000 from overseas, brought in 190 million yuan ($27.8 million) in revenue last year, Liping tourism bureau's Zhang explains.

Local incomes have increased by 20 to 25 percent since tourism started taking off in 2003, he says.

Jintang's Party chief Shou Yixing says that while the tourism has flourished, it can't insulate everyone in the village from the drought's impact. "Our tourism is still in its early stages, and many people still depend on farming," he explains.