Tourism development in Lijiang County, Yunnan, China

The Jade Dragon Snow Mountains in Lijiang county are the most southerly mountains of Eurasia to support glaciers and permanent snowfields. Elevations range from 1 800 to 5 600 m above sea level, and ecologies from subtropical forest through several natural forest belts, alpine tundra, bare rock and permanent ice and snow.

The two main mountain massifs, the Yulongxue Shan and the Habaxue Shan, are cut by the great gorge of the upper Yangtze (Jinsha Jiang), known as Tiger Leap Gorge. This gigantic feature is nearly 4 000 m deep and is rapidly becoming one of the great tourist attractions of Southeast Asia; it is also the potential site for what would be one of the world’s highest hydroelectricity dams.

Lijiang county has a total population of about 325 000, comprising Naxi, Yi, Tibetan, Bai, Lisu and Han peoples. Of these people, 70 percent depend on household farming, and 30 percent are urban dwellers. The average per capita income of the rural population is only 420 Yuan/year (about US$70). Many villages have no road access, electricity, water supply or sewage disposal. Rural poverty is therefore widespread in the county.

In 1979/1980, the Government of China introduced a new policy known as the household responsibility system, which replaced the collective farms of the Mao Zedong era. Land and forests reverted to village and household control. Commercial logging, which had long been the most important enterprise in Lijiang county, mushroomed after 1985, reaching a peak in 1989/1990.

In the same year, Ulongxue Shan Nature Reserve was established, and Lijiang county was opened to outsiders. Provincial governments recognized tourism as having the best potential for the area’s development. Concerns about environmental quality contributed to a crackdown on logging, which was replaced by tourism activities as a source of non-farm income.

The development of tourism in Lijiang and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains is a clear case of highland/lowland interaction. In the early stages, the popularity of Yunnan’s provincial capital Kunming was critical to the viability of tourism in relatively remote Lijiang county. Thanks to Kunming tourism operators, the Tiger Leap Gorge and its biodiversity have become a primary attraction for tourists visiting the province. The architecture of Lijiang old town, which was designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1997, is also of special interest, as are the surrounding temples and traditional villages.

National visitors still constitute the overwhelming majority of tourist arrivals in Lijiang, but the domestic market has too little purchasing power to sustain the tourism industry. Tourism development in the area was therefore largely triggered by international visitors. From 1986 to 1996, international arrivals in Lijiang increased dramatically, by more than 70 percent a year, to reach more than 100 000 international visitors in 1996.

Thanks to this international flow, Lijiang tourism has developed from a primitive level to one of rapidly extending surfaced roads, four-star hotels, attractive restaurants, air-conditioned luxury tour buses and a modern airport 45 minutes from Kunming. Conditions tied to the granting of World Heritage Site status have protected the old town from new and ugly development, and in spite of a catastrophic earthquake in February 1996, Lijiang town is now a very comfortable and culturally interesting destination. On the other hand, the rise in property values is forcing local residents out to make room for tourist boutiques and restaurants, which are owned and managed by people from distant parts of China.

Concurrent to the development of Lijiang, much of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains has been increasingly protected as a nature preserve, although the foothills are the site of exclusive hotels and amusement facilities. One of the saddest occurrences took place around Yunshangping, the so-called Love-Suicide Meadow. People from the three extremely poor Yi villages nearby seized the opportunities of tourism by acquiring horses and decorating them so that traditionally costumed local women could lead them to carry visitors up the 600-m ascent to the meadow. Within two years, business had boomed and the villages had more than 100 horses. Then things started to go wrong.

Fierce competition broke out between rival families. Tourists littered the route with refuse, including plastic bags, which choked Yi livestock to death. A chairlift, constructed with foreign investment, undercut the Yi businesses, and their shift to horse riding and racing in the meadow was terminated by the authorities because of excessive environmental damage. Villagers were left with horses they could not afford to feed and neglected subsistence crops, while the chairlift had broken even within two years. Subsequently, a surfaced road, restaurants and guesthouses sprang up.

As the local Yi watched their own tourism enterprises collapse, two troops of dancers were brought in from outside the area. The girls were paid a pittance to dance for tourists, and the curiosity degenerated into prostitution. In the meantime, the Love-Suicide Meadow continued to grow in popularity, and by 2000 traffic jams of tour buses had become common.

Following the initial financial success of the chairlift, a swath was cut through the mountain forest to above the timber line at 4 500 m, and a large cable car was installed to provide instant access to snowfields, glaciers and delicate alpine meadows. A second cable car was constructed in 2000, and busloads of wealthy tourists from the lowlands of Southeast Asia can now be whisked up to have their first snowball fight at hypoxic elevations.

Adapted from J. Ives. 2001. Highland-lowland interactive systems.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007