Shop owners in Fenghuang old town, a popular tourist site in Hunan province , have seen business fall by as much as half since the local government introduced an entry fee for tourists last week. They went on strike on Wednesday over the charge.
The government says the 148 yuan (HK$185) admission fee is necessary to keep the streets and waterways clean amid a rising tide of tourists. But business owners say the fee, which they fear will rise in the long term, is already driving away customers.
Meng Hua said 50 per cent fewer customers have come into the small rice noodle shop he manages in Fenghuang old town. He hopes that some customers will return after public anger over the fee subsides.
"We've no choice but to wait and see, because I don't know what else I could do for a living," Meng said. "But it's as simple as that. We can't operate for a loss all the time."
Fenghuang, in the province's southwest, was founded in the Tang dynasty (618-907) and is known for its well-preserved Ming and Qing dynasty buildings and its large Miao and Tujia ethic-minority populations. It was placed on a tentative list of sites for inclusion in Unesco's World Heritage list in 2008 for its "practical and scientific city planning and town site selection".
Yesterday marked the beginning of the first weekend since the shop owners' strike, which paralysed the old town.
Hundreds of Fenghuang residents, most them local business owners, gathered in front of the local government offices to protest against the move. Scuffles between protesters and police broke out before riot police were called in to restore order.
Outrage over the new fee has resonated nationally, with many people calling it shortsighted and likening it to killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.
The operator of a small hotel in Fenghuang said there was no police presence yesterday and much of the downtown area was much quieter.
He estimated that business could drop by some 30 per cent and said the government should make an effort at damage control sooner rather than later.
"The government might have a good reason [to impose an entry price], but the question is why is the fee so big," he said.
"The public deserves an answer for that because it's not going to work if it turns out that someone is going to lose [out]."