The other side of paradise

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2010, 12:00am

What's in a name? Everything it seems, judging by Shangri-La's transformation into a tourist magnet. In 2000, just 20,000 visitors made their way to what was then still Zhongdian, a dusty, small town in remote northwest Yunnan province populated mainly by Tibetans and other ethnic minorities such as the Naxi. But in the first half of last year, eight years after it changed its name to Shangri-La, two million came.

For the locals, the memories of life in the former Zhongdian are still vivid. 'When I was young, there was only one street in Shangri-La and one business area with about 40 shops. The so-called old town was just a village with dirt roads and pigs and yaks wandering around,' says Ma Duoji, the Bai owner of the Songtsam Retreat, an upmarket resort on the outskirts of Shangri-La.

These days, the narrow, cobblestone lanes of the newly-built 'old town' are packed with jewellery and clothes stores. Travellers crowd the main square each night as locals in traditional costume put on dancing shows. Success, however, has come at a price. Outside Shangri-La, the landscape is still a sublime mix of mountains and lakes at 3,000 metres above sea level. Then the green meadows full of grazing yaks, the white stupas and wooden houses decorated with fluttering Tibetan prayer flags give way abruptly to the uniform office and apartment blocks that characterise all of the mainland's cities.

The construction boom that means almost every building in Shangri-La is less than 10 years old shows no sign of stopping, so the city is encroaching ever further onto what was once virgin grassland, and tour group buses jam the new roads. Now, there are very real fears that Shangri-La has grown too much too quickly, with dire consequences for the environment, and that the city's Tibetan culture has been diluted in the drive for the tourist yuan.

'Modernisation has gone too fast. I think maybe the local government and people don't realise the consequences of what they are doing,' says Ma Zuqian, who opened the popular backpackers' hostel Kevin's Trekker Inn in 2003. A member of the Bai minority and originally from Kunming, Ma believes the development of Shangri-La has been haphazard at best. 'The city is three times bigger than it was when I moved here, but the infrastructure hasn't developed along with it. The big problem is the water supply; there isn't enough and it goes off at certain times every day.'

A lack of running water is not what you'd expect in a place that markets itself as a paradise. But Shangri-La's struggle to provide basic services is being mirrored across the mainland, as more towns and cities look to take advantage of the massive boom in domestic travel. About 90 per cent of Shangri-La's visitors are mainlanders who, in total, made 1.9 billion trips around the country last year, an 11 per cent rise on 2008. Those numbers helped the tourism industry achieve a record revenue last year of more than 1.2 trillion yuan (HK$1.4 trillion), according to the National Tourism Administration.

It took years of frantic lobbying by local officials to get the State Council in Beijing to approve the changing of the city's name to Shangri-La, the mystical Garden of Eden that was the setting for the hugely popular 1933 novel Lost Horizon. The motivation was purely financial. Logging, the primary industry, was banned in 1998 after years of deforestation. Tourism was seen as the ideal substitute, especially as nearby Lijiang is Yunnan's number one attraction.

How to get some of the five million visitors who descend on Lijiang annually to travel onto a nondescript town with few obvious sights was the stumbling block, despite the beautiful scenery that surrounds Zhongdian. It was overcome when it was decided that the close-by Kawa Karpo Mountain resembles the peak described in Lost Horizon and so the town must be the real-life locale of Shangri-La.

As tenuous a claim as it was, the mystique the name engenders has had the desired effect and transformed the area's fortunes. That success has led other cities to try and re-brand themselves to boost tourism. Earlier this year, officials in Zhangjiajie city in Hunan province renamed a peak in the Wulingyuan National Park the 'Avatar Hallelujah Mountain', and are now marketing the area as the basis for the floating mountains in the movie. That's despite that Avatar's director James Cameron has said that Huangshan, the ethereal peak in Anhui province, was the inspiration for them.

But money talks and now even those locals in Shangri-La who initially opposed the name change are in favour of it. 'At first, I didn't accept the new name. Now, I think it's a good thing because it has that concept of purity and nature that many people come to Shangri-La to find,' says Ma Duoji. Even so, he is concerned that the sheer number of tourists being drawn to the area will eventually overwhelm it. 'I am worried that too many will come in the future. I think in the next 10 years the city needs to concentrate on cultural development, rather than just trying to attract greater numbers of tourists.'

Maintaining a region's distinct local culture while it undergoes rapid commercialisation has long been a problem in Yunnan, where so many of the prime tourist destinations are in areas dominated by ethnic minorities. So far, the jury is still out on the way Shangri-La has managed it, as well as whether the Tibetans in the city have gained any benefit. 'There are lots of outsiders who have moved here for business, but I think that has also motivated a lot of Tibetans to start their own businesses,' says Lobsang Dolma, an ethnic Tibetan tour guide. 'Before they were just farming, now they have other options.'

Nevertheless, the increased opportunities have had the effect of de-populating much of the surrounding countryside. Many villages are now home only to the old, as young Tibetans abandon them and their traditional lifestyles to work in Shangri-La. 'It's hard for them to think about preserving their culture when they are too busy doing jobs that aren't related to their culture,' says Dolma.

Others decry the way the local culture has been co-opted in the name of tourism, pointing to the Songzanlin Monastery, the largest in southwest China and Shangri-La's principal sight, which was rebuilt and expanded. Its admission price has gone up by 150 per cent in the last two years. 'It's unreasonable to charge so much to visit a monastery. It's a holy place and shouldn't be so business-oriented. I think it puts off a lot of people who are really interested in Tibetan Buddhism. I also think it's had a bad effect on the locals; they've started to associate their culture with making money,' says Ma Zuqian.

There is no sign that Shangri-La is slowing down in its efforts to build on its new-found fame. In 2015, a long-awaited train line linking the city to Dali and Lijiang will open. By then, the four new national parks being established in the area will be up and running. No one is sure what effect the inevitable increase in visitor numbers will have on the city or its surrounding ecology.

But those who believe that Shangri-La is on the wrong path do not have to look very far for an example of how to turn a place into a tourist trap. Lijiang's status as one of the most popular destinations in China has come at a severe cost. Now as busy in peak season as central London or Manhattan at rush hour, rampant re-building has robbed the ancient town of much of its charm. It was only when Unesco threatened to take Lijiang off its list of World Heritage Sites in 2007 that a brake was put on some of the development. By then, however, much of the damage had been done.