Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Stairway to heavenly Hangzhou

Stairway to heavenly Hangzhou

China's paradise city is at a crossroads - can it take the path to tourist dollars without turning into hell?

Published on December 1, 2007

Stairway to heavenly Hangzhou

Two hours in a small karaoke bar in Hangzhou could sum up the promises and obstacles for tourism in China. A young owner who's drunk before most of his customers. Enthusiastic, friendly but somewhat awkward staff. Amateurish imported Filipino musicians doubling as translators. And me, the sole foreign customer, who in 10 minutes created a mini chaos in his quest for a Heineken.

It was loud, muggy and amicable. I could have been in any small Thai pub, but for one important missing detail - Western tourists. In fact, foreign tourists in general.

The Chinese authorities are working on that, though with an admirably cautious approach. I was among a group of several foreign journalists invited to take in the breathtakingly scenic Hangzhou and surrounding areas earlier this month. Everybody loved the trip, but shared the crucial thought that it could have been a real adventure without our Chinese guides.

Hangzhou is, well, like a beautiful young innocent. To me at least - pointing to the mushrooming of giant concrete structures, some old-timers might disagree. Compared with key tourist spots in other countries, though, the city is peaceful, squeaky clean and largely untainted by commercialism. Long considered China's paradise city, it boasts picturesque tranquillity in the forms of encircling lush hills, pagodas, temples, museums, and, of course, the renowned West Lake.

Coming from Bangkok, the Hangzhou air in November is refreshingly cool. The food however - maybe it was just me - could make you miss Chinese restaurants in Bangkok a little. As for the people, they contribute to the vibrancy of a city crying out for the attention it deserves. At the moment, the many luxury hotels seem to have outstripped the city's tourist numbers; you can count on the fingers of one hand their exotic-looking guests at breakfast.

A potentially heavenly destination for peace-loving tourists or eco-tourism advocates, Hangzhou's authorities now face the dilemma of promoting this image without turning the city into a tourism gold rush. Fortunately, the Chinese are by nature prudent, eager to learn from others' experiences and avoid their mistakes. To this end, our group joined delegates from 16 countries - journalists, tourism-development experts, environmentalists, diplomats and officials - for a one-day seminar aimed at cutting a path for sustainable growth in this double-edged sword of an industry.

Hangzhou was awarded China's Best Tourism City earlier this year by the China Tourism Administration and the World Tourism Organisation, not just for its attractions but also for actions that have set an example for tourism development around the world. The "City of Quality of Life" is a new slogan being mooted by its authorities to take the ecological awareness theme a step further. In other countries sceptical environmentalists would probably dismiss such mixed ambitions as empty rhetoric, but the Chinese have one major advantage: the term "strict control" means just that.

The development plan for Hangzhou will be state-guided and that could be a blessing as far as the environment and conservation are concerned. The private sector will be encouraged, and there's been talk of promoting the use of the English language. The city's residents are being guaranteed that tourism brings money and new jobs, and that everyone will have equal opportunities to enjoy the fruits of the carefully planned changes.

The question is how far they are prepared to go. "Tourists are not staying long enough," says Li Hong, director of the Hangzhou Tourism Commission. In light of this, the key issue is how to increase the number of quality tourists and make them stay longer. With the city ambivalent about sideline tourist activities that are potentially damaging to the environment, like large-scale camping or trekking or nightlife entertainment, there seems to be only one path left. Hangzhou authorities envision better transport along with a massive expansion of sightseeing and quality leisure pursuits.

Heaven above, Hangzhou below. The residents take pride in the fact that their city is a real paradise on earth, a place rich in ancient history and boasting a fascinating evolution. Located south of the Yangtze River Delta on China's east coast, Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province and most likely known to those outside China as the southern neighbour of Shanghai, which is a two-hour, 150-kilometre train ride away.

"Hangzhou is the place to experience a harmonious blend of the essential ancient and modern aspects of China," wrote Monique Van Dijk and Alexandra Moss, co-authors of "China Through the Looking Glass: Hangzhou". And indeed, in this city whose history can be traced back some 2,200 years, there's an opportunity to absorb the facets of traditional Chinese culture through real-life experiences rather than textbooks.

Our visit to West Lake, for example, reveals layers of history and culture beneath the outward scenic splendour. Over the years it has inspired classic tales of love and woe, and many important works of Chinese literature have been composed along its shores.

A number of national museums in Hangzhou focus on Chinese culture in general, prime examples being the National Silk Museum and the Tea Museum. We were also taken to Xixi National Wetland Park on the western outskirts of Hangzhou, a beautiful expanse of freshwater marshland rich in ecology as well as cultural heritage, and the spectacular Linshan "fairyland", a group of limestone caverns around 20km southwest of the city.

Although the tour of the Linshan caves came at the end of a tightly-scheduled trip when legs were about to give way, the place wowed me. Discovered some 1,500 years ago, their nickname of fairyland couldn't have been better chosen. Zigzagging through the colourfully illuminated caves, our imaginations stretched and soared in an effort to match those who had named each zone. We passed through heavens and hells, seeing the faces of angels and demons in the strange rock structures.

I was sorry to leave Hangzhou after being rushed through a tour of a place that offers the calm of solitude as well as natural beauty. But then again, that's another dilemma of tourism. With only three days to absorb as much of the natural and cultural grandeur of somewhere like Hangzhou, you have no option but to go against the elegant slow-paced nature of the city.

Hangzhou has much to offer. If you love history, this is the place. If you enjoy untouched natural surroundings, it has what it takes. Art and culture are everywhere.

The Chinese authorities seem to have everything they need, except perhaps a path that will bring this paradise on earth closer to outsiders without tainting its beauty. Like many of the Chinese tales of romance between gods and mortals, results could be mixed at best.

I hope the authorities succeed. The good thing, though, is they have nothing to lose if they fail to coax more of us earth-dwellers to the gates of this heaven.

Tulsathit Taptim

The Nation

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