China’s Lijiang achieves new progress by integrating culture, tourism

An aerial photo of the Old Town of Lijiang, southwest China’s Yunnan province. (Photo from the official website of the Old Town of Lijiang)

The Old Town of Lijiang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southwest China’s Yunnan province, has returned to its unsophistication from excessive commercial development thanks to the town’s efforts to incorporate more cultural elements into its tourism development.

Today, cultural experience programs are easier to be seen in the old town, such as workshops of Dongba paper, wood carving, and embroidery, while hackneyed shops selling flower cakes and African drums are dwindling. Today, it takes at least two days to visit all the 23 cultural courtyards in the old town.

How to retain its cultural appeal while launching commercial programs to cater for the demands of tourists is front and center for the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Commercialization is not an issue, but excessive commercialization has impacted the old town’s traditional culture,” said Mu Sheng, deputy director of the old town’s protection and administration bureau.

In the old days, high-return commercial programs in the old town were always massively followed and even copied, which led to a situation where businesses were homogeneous. It was also a problem for many old towns across China.

This forced Lijiang to explore a new path of development. By integrating culture and tourism, the old town introduced a dynamic list to encourage courtyards boasting traditional cultures, trying to dilute the town’s commercial density with more cultural elements.

The dynamic list was implemented in the core zones of the old town in 2019. Sixteen types of businesses such as cybercafes, electronic toys, and modern construction materials were banned from market access. Bars became a restricted business that existing ones could be maintained, but none shall be approved anymore.

“By doing this we are forcing existing businesses to transform or upgrade. While we curb excessive commercialization, we also encourage cultural inheritors and handicraftsmen to establish shops that carry forward or demonstrate featured and traditional cultures,” Mu said. These businesses enjoy green lights in approval, as well as a series of favorable policies such as rent reduction and subsidies, he continued.

“We don’t sell anything in the hall. What we only charge is a flat rate for experience. All we want to do is to inherit the culture of the Naxi ethnic group,” said He Runyuan, who quit a decent job and now runs a Naxi hieroglyph experience hall in Lijiang.

In his eyes, the old town is not in short of businesses, but culture. “The inheritance of culture is not a matter of money,” the man told People’s Daily. His experience hall received policy support and a subsidy, and is now a great destination for tourists who want to learn Naxi culture.

Miao Liwei, a content producer on short video platforms and chairman of Lijiang’s new media association, now runs a B&B in the old town. “What attracts tourists is not culture itself, but the culture in stories,” Miao said. He believes good communication methods help the inheritance of culture. It calls for supports from both the government and market to run the cultural courtyard business and revitalize traditional culture, the man noted.

Today, Lijiang is laying more importance on improving tourism experience, from decorating a street with traditional Chinese oil-paper umbrellas, to supporting role playing detective game rooms.

“Our revenue of role playing games alone has exceeded 5 million yuan ($770,831),” said Li Zexi, who runs a game room in Lijiang. According to the man, players must learn the history of the old town and some of the Dongba characters in order to play the games. The immersive experience is now attracting many young people.

Apart from native Lijiang residents, out-of-town couple Liang Qin and Peng Ping have trained over 400 embroidery masters at a school they set up in the old town. “The traditional embroidery skills of Lijiang is more practical, but today we’re digging into its artistic value,” Liang said, expecting the local embroidery skill to make its own name one day.

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