Illustrations: Peter C. Espina/GT
Lijiang, a fairyland blessed with breathtaking sceneries and unspoiled customs according to travel guides, made headlines again. The ancient city in southwest China's Yunnan Province was issued a serious warning by the National Tourism Administration this week in the wake of a string of attacks on tourists and extortion allegations, the second of its kind since 2015. The warning immediately sparked a public uproar online, with netizens applauding the action and venting their dissatisfactions with China's chaotic tourism market.
Apart from property losses and scams, tourists' personal safety was also threatened in Lijiang. Two young women were beaten by a gang of young men at a barbecue restaurant in the town last November. A family of eight was attacked by a restaurant owner after a dispute over service quality earlier this year. Despite local officials' pledges to clean up the act, no apparent changes have been seen so far. Lijiang deserves the warning.
Interestingly, while the Old Town of Lijiang is among the three scenic spots - the other two are in Mudanjiang and Dalian - that have been issued a warning, the public and media outlets seem to have neglected to report unfortunate incidents at the other two spots but concentrated their attention on the picturesque "fairyland" in Yunnan.
Disorder in the tourism sector is a phenomenon in China that cannot be ignored, and some places may have more problems than Lijiang.
Extortion never makes the news in China, especially during national holidays. It is nothing strange that tourists are charged 50 yuan ($7.3) for a bowl of noodle, 200 yuan for a local dish and 300 yuan for a 30-minute tour guide at scenic spots. More unimaginably, some even build fake tourism sites to trick innocent tourists, for instance, the fake terra-cotta warrior site - "the Hall of the World's Eighth Wonder" - in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. Horror stories related to tourism are too many to count, and visitors are always told to be prepared, financially and psychologically, for various kinds of scams and traps at tourist attractions.
The abovementioned incidents highlight local authorities' hunger for commercial interests. With little momentum for economic growth, tourism is the easiest way to create jobs and incomes. Eager to boost the economy, local governments sometimes turn a blind eye to overpriced admission tickets, undue fees and even fake tourist attractions. It seems to be a universal truth that the more underdeveloped the region is, the more expensive it charges visitors. Admittedly, the tourism industry is an ideal revenue generator. But, a chaotic market will backfire.
An increasing number of Chinese tourists now prefer overseas sightseeing to domestic trips. Instead of being packed into Chinese scenic spots like a canned sardine, constantly on alert of traps and scams, many friends of mine spent their spring festival holidays overseas, enjoying five-star services at the same cost of domestic trips.
Chinese, especially the younger generations, have higher demands for traveling. For them, the significance of sightseeing lies in their cultural and educational desires, as well as a way of relaxation.
The shift from domestic tourism spots to overseas destinations will strike a blow to China's tourism industry, which may be trapped in a vicious circle if no effective action is taken to improve the status quo. Fewer visitors lead to fewer revenues and thus, local governments would be more eager to overcharge potential tourists. Undue fees can bring instant benefits, but may destroy the whole industry in the long run.
It is not the first time that these kinds of stories are made public and the chaotic scenic spots are given a warning. Local governments cannot afford to ignore public dissatisfactions. Determination is needed to regulate China's tourism market. After all, it is sustainable development, rather than instant profits, that will give memorable experiences to tourists and bring long-term prosperity to the region.
The author is a reporter with the Global Times. firstname.lastname@example.org