Ethnic minorities and scenic sights increase allure
Ask someone who has not been to China's wild west where he would like to visit and most likely he would say Xinjiang.
For many people, Xinjiang holds a unique charm. Its landscape, dominated by vast expanses of desert and spectacular snow-capped mountain ranges, is home to a population made up of more than 10 minority groups, whose colourful dress, lifestyles, and distinct customs make Xinjiang quite unlike any other part of the country.
The three months from July to September when melon and grapes are in season is prime time for tourism. The number of tourists has been increasing.
Last year, almost eight million domestic and foreign visitors arrived, spending 6.3 billion yuan (HK$5.8 billion) and US$94 million respectively. In Go West - Xinjiang's Development Plan, prepared by the provincial planning commission, tourism has been designated as 'one of the most important pillar industries' and a 'propelling force for the new economy'.
The government hopes that when people come to Xinjiang they realise that it is not as remote as it seems, not as dangerous as media reports have suggested, and that people will discover its business potential and that after a few visits, they may want to invest.
According to Wang Jiangong, deputy director of Xinjiang Tourism Bureau, what Xinjiang needs is extensive promotion of its tourist attractions, like Yunan province did with much success.
Next year, Xinjiang will focus its resources on tourism and engage in large-scale promotional activities such as inviting travel agents from the east to visit during peak seasons.
In Turpan, some smart families have found a way to capitalise on tourism. More than 30 families have opened their homes to tourists and two homes have been officially designated as tourist accommodation.
The family earns 30 to 50 yuan from each traveller recommended by the Tourism Bureau. Most come during the day, looking for that exotic ethnic feel, eating grapes in the yard, tasting ethnic cuisine and mingling with the family.
The family shares the income with the bureau,which gets 40 per cent. During the summer which lasts about five months, each family could earn about 10,000 yuan.
As promising as it is, there are in fact many difficulties in further developing the industry. The seasonal nature of Xinjiang poses some major problems. One has to either deal with droughts or floods. In addition, accommodation is fully booked in the peak season in June and September. And in winter, hotels are empty.
'We enjoy very good business in peak seasons, but struggle to make ends meet at other times,' said Bruno Stoti, general manager of Urumqi's five-star Hoi Tak Hotel. The 36-storey property, opened in 1997 with US$70 million investment, has yet to make a profit given the huge initial outlay.
'We hope to break even in the next two years.' said Mr Stoti.
There are more than 60 star-grade hotels and 500,000 beds in Urumqi. Competition for guests is intense.
'In slow times, hotels have to cut rates to attract customers. The main income is from food and beverages. Grand China, a four-star hotel, closed down about five months ago. It only opened about 12 months ago.'
Other impediments to tourism are distance and travel costs. Xinjiang is far from key cities; Beijing and Shanghai and Guang-zhou. Beijing, the closest, is 2,700 kilometres by air and 3,800 km by train. The furthest of the three, Guangzhou, is 3,500 km by air and 4,500 km by road.
It costs at least 10,000 yuan to travel a week in Xinjiang. For the same cost, travellers could go to Europe for three or four days.
'When a customer is faced with these two packages, which package do you think he will choose?' a travel agent in Hong Kong wondered. The tourism bureau's Mr Wang hopes the government will allow airlines to grant discounts on air fares. Xinjiang residents, let alone tourists, are themselves reluctant to travel outside the province.
Within the province itself, tourists have to travel long distances to reach scenic spots. From the capital Urumqi to the southern centre Kashgar, it is a 10-15 hour drive. Among those who come, there are not many who seek an adventure in the desert areas. Mr Wang says 95 per cent are leisure travellers.
'Only a tiny fraction are willing to venture into the desert and bear the physical discomfort of having to sit in the 40 degree [Celsius] heat for eight hours to see an ancient grave.'