Entrepreneurs hope relay will boost Shangri-la

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2008, 12:00am

Kevin Ma personifies China's generation-X - those born on the cusp of change and who are in adulthood grasping new opportunities with both hands and the ubiquitous entrepreneurial zeal evident across the nation.

'I remember my father had ration coupons and used them to buy food and clothes. That was only in the late 1980s. I am very much aware of the transformation that has happened in the country and the opportunities given to me, especially here,' says the 28-year-old guest house owner in the north Yunnan tourist town of Shangri-la .

'My parents gave me everything they never had. I went to university in my hometown of Lijiang . I became a tour guide, taking tourists into the mountains.

'I liked the life so I opened my first guest house five years ago and moved to this one late last year,' he says.

He took out a loan to build the latest addition to his property portfolio. Mr Ma and his girlfriend Yao Jian represent Yunnan's diversity. He is of the Bai ethnic minority and she is from the Shui community.

In this town high on a plateau, two-thirds of 120,000 people are ethnic Naxi and Tibetan.

'When I first came here, all the new town,' says Mr Ma, with a sweep of his arm to indicate the urban sprawl across the plain, 'was not here. It's grown so quickly'.

Ten years ago Shangri-la (formerly Zhongdian), 3,200 metres above sea level, was a sleepy plateau hideaway visited by only hardy travellers. But watching the boom tourist towns of Dali and Lijiang to the south, ambitions were quickly mirrored and transferred into reality.

Cheaply constructed Han-designed buildings sprung up to support the Han migrants seeking their fortune from the tourists flocking to the old town that boasts gold-topped pagodas and temples, and the nearby Ganden Sumtseling Gompa Monastery.

With trekking into the Snowy Mountains and a small but busy airport offering easy transport, the tourism industry is now the main source of income. Many have been harvesting the boom, but a downturn in the town's fortune began in March following Beijing's lockdown of Tibetan communities in response to the Lhasa riots.

The authorities flooded the traditional Tibetan-populated town with troops and police and banned foreign tour groups from arriving by aircraft.

Mr Ma said business suffered after the riots, with bookings falling to a fraction of what he would expect.

'But I did feel safer with the soldiers here after seeing [on television] Chinese being beaten up in Tibet and Gansu .'

The torch relay will not visit this far north but it is hoped the procession through the province and Lijiang tomorrow will help the drive to attract tourists back as the government relaxes the travel bans.