February 13, 2013 00:00 By Nicole Sy
Although they are bringing in much-needed cash, visitors are also having a negative effect on town and temple in Shangri-La
In 2002, a small county in Southwest China scored a victory for tourism when the government approved its name to be changed from Zhongdian to Shangri-La county, inspired by the 1933 James Hilton novel, “Lost Horizon”. According to Hilton, Shangri-La is where humans and nature co-exist peacefully and religions intermingle. "Shangri-La" originates from the Tibetan word, shambhalla, which means “the sun and moon in your heart”.
Located in Diqing Tibet autonomous prefecture of Yunnan province, Shangri-La, or Xianggelila in Chinese, is generally accepted as a marketing ploy that follows on the coattails of the tourism success of its neighbour, Lijiang.
In 1999, construction was completed on Diqing Shangri-La Airport, making it one of the largest airports in Yunnan province. It caters only to domestic flights and connects to such cities as Beijing, Guangzhou, Kunming and Shenzhen.
More impressive is the scheduled Dali-Shangri-La railway. Once completed, it will link Shangri-La with the two other major tourist destinations in Yunnan, Dali and Lijiang. The huge project has a reported investment of 9.2 billion yuan (Bt44.8 billion) and is expected to open in 2015.
But, the assumption that the “trickle-down” effect of money flowing from big investments to locals is “misguided”, Hillman believes.
“The real challenge lies in creating opportunities for the poor within the new economic development,” he says.
Rose’s Cafe stands out in Shangri-La's old town not only because of its famed hot chocolate, but also because it has one of the area’s two Western-style sit-down toilets.
The owner, who only goes by her English name, Rose, also stands out from the crowd.
Born in Liaoning province, the university graduate quit her a well-paid job with a multinational in Guangzhou to settle here.
It’s easy to see why Rose fell in love with the place. A feeling of inner peace resonates across the mountains when the sun goes down and people retire to their homes.
The only night-lights except on the main road are the blanket of stars generously sprinkled across the sky so close to the heavens.
The biggest danger from walking around at night is stepping into a pile of yak dung or running into one as they roam freely in the open fields, but Rose worries all this is changing now, as more and more tourists flood in.
Domestic tourism has boomed in China as the middle class and their disposable incomes grow and they seek exotic locations for vacation.
While tourist spending has led to a welcome surge of income for many in Shangri-La, much of the Tibetan population is also feeling the negative effects of tourism.
The town’s Songzalin Monastery, known as “Little Potala” among tourists after the Potala Palace in Tibet autonomous region, is a major tourist attraction, but is first and foremost a place of Buddhist worship.
While the temple’s entrance does have signs saying, “No Pictures, No Hats, No Sunglasses”, in Chinese and English, Lobsang still has to remind visitors and ask them not to take photographs.
The environment has taken a hit as well. A study conducted in 2007 by the College of Business Administration and Tourism Management at Yunnan University concludes that the “ecological consumption” of a visitor from Shanghai for an “eight-day tour of Shangri-La” is more than that of a resident in six months.
Still, all is not lost for travellers wanting to experience Shangri-La for themselves, minus the cynicism and commercialism that tourism brings.
WildChina Office Director in China, Nellie Connolly, admits that while some authentic culture has been lost, there is still much to be positive about.
“There are some negative aspects to tourism in China, but slowly but surely, this is also changing,” Connolly says.