Unrest forgotten as tourists flock back to Xinjiang

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am

Every Sunday morning herders and farmers head for the huge open-air market on the outskirts of Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road city in the mainland'smost westerly province, Xinjiang.

The richer ones travel by truck or van, but most arrive on foot, walking for hours to buy or sell yaks and cows in an outpost that is nearer to Islamabad, Kabul and Moscow than it is to Beijing.

Kashgar is more than 2,000 years old and predominantly Muslim. A strategically important gateway to China from Pakistan and Central Asia it has long been on the backpacker trail, but these days, with improved air and rail links, it has emerged as a major tourist destination.

'I have never seen such a huge livestock trading market anywhere in the world. This old trading method seems to have been going on unchanged for more than 1,000 years. It's amazing,' said Pierre Bouche, a French architect from Paris, who was spending two days in Kashgar before taking the less than two-hour flight to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

'Uygurs are very friendly and they smile a lot,' he said, adding that safety was not a major concern at all.

Tourism in Kashgar is lively once more since the city was labelled a hotbed of unrest after nearly 200 people were killed in ethnic riots in Urumqi on July 5 last year.

Close to the entrance of the livestock market, Patrick Buttard from Pontarlier in France, is trying to haggle down the price for some exotic Kashgar knives at one of the stalls selling handcrafted goods.

Buttard said he would be spending three weeks in Xinjiang.

'It is a great place for a holiday,' Buttard said, adding he did not feel it was a dangerous place in which to travel.

Another tourist from Istanbul said he came with a tour group of 30. Asked if he was worried about security after last year's bloody riots, he shrugged: 'Why should I?'

In Urumqi, Hoi Tak Hotel assistant general manager for food and beverage Benny Lai, who comes from Hong Kong, said tourists and businessmen started to return to Xinjiang in the middle of last month.

'Now domestic and international tourists are back. Group tours from Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, Wenzhou, Germany, Australia and Canada are staying in our hotel. Occupancy rates are 90 per cent as July is the start of the peak travel season,' Lai said.

Most of them would stay up to 10 days, he said, adding that Kashgar was one of their destinations.

To meet the demand for air services, daily flights from Urumqi to Kashgar have increased to eight, from four previously,

In response to the central government's call for financial aid to help revive Xinjiang, one of the poorest areas on the mainland, big domestic airlines China Southern, China Eastern, Hainan Airlines and Air China joined forces to increase services to the northwest region.

China Southern said it would increase passenger capacity to 12 million over the next five years, from four million at present.

PingTian Resorts, a wholly owned foreign enterprise headquartered in Urumqi, secured the rights to build a ski resort in the Tian Shan mountains four years ago, but construction was stalled by the global financial crisis and last year's violent ethnic clashes.

'What we had last year was a tragedy. It does serve as a wake-up call,' Thomas Ching, president and chief executive of PingTian Resorts, said.

He said the central government's moves to revive the region's economy would encourage investors.

'Many things have been happening. We have seen all sorts of roadworks and they are beautifying the city by planting more trees. Government officials are also talking about supporting enterprises for future growth,' Ching said.

He said previously the government had been very slow to repair roads and carry out other infrastructure work to improve access to PingTian's resort site, an hour's drive from Urumqi. 'It is a completely different story today from last year. The road has been widened and a power plant is being planned,' he said.

When Ching, a Chinese-American, launched a road show in the United States recently, he said people did not consider Urumqi a dangerous city.

Phase one of the resort on a 4,850-hectare site was originally meant to open by November 2007. Now construction will start next month and the first phase would open in November next year.

When the whole project is completed by 2021, it will provide 1,617 flats, three hotels with 475 rooms, and 41,770 sq ft of commercial space.

It aims to provide accommodation for 6,610 visitors, and expects to play host to 700,000 skiers a year.

The first phase is costing US$140 million, but the whole project will need investment of around US$1 billion.