Don't literally tear down the Ming-dinasty wall, but build on it --figuratively: Tourism for development in China

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Only pedestrians and bikes are allowed on Pingyao's main street.

China’s coastal areas have benefited the most from reform and opening up because they were allowed to go first and also because their geography gives them better connection to the global market.  But now some of China’s lagging interior regions are turning their disadvantages to advantages.  Developing later, some interior towns have the opportunity to preserve their ancient character and use this as an asset to attract tourists and create jobs. 

My family got to see this first-hand on a weekend trip to Pingyao, one of the best preserved ancient cities in China.  Most cities long ago tore down their city walls to make way for development.  People in Pingyao joke that their city was too poor to tear down their massive Ming-dynasty wall, so it is one of the few left completely intact.  Now the city sees it as a valuable asset, and has had the good sense to ban motor vehicles in the inner city, creating a lovely walking/biking environment through its beautiful ancient streets. 

Pingyao is well positioned to attract tourists as it is a convenient overnight train ride from Beijing.  The most difficult part of our trip was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get across Beijing to the Western train station on a Friday afternoon.  We had a good sleep in the comfortable beds of the overnight train, and arrived in Pingyao at 7:30 on Saturday morning, ready to go.  The contrast from Beijing could not be greater: beautiful blue sky, and the only traffic on foot and bikes.  We could tell from the accents that most of the other visitors were from Beijing as well. 

I arrive at Pingyao station with my brother, Jerry.

Pingyao has well-preserved ancient houses that visitors can stay in for a unique glimpse of old China.  It also has lovely temples and a town hall from the Ming Dynasty.  Most fun was walking around the city on top of the wall, and biking the interior road that runs along it.  Shanxi province is famous for different shaped noodles, and Pingyao did not disappoint.

For local people, cultural preservation is both a source of pride as well as an opportunity to earn an income without moving to larger cities.  The economic impact of cultural heritage preservation was evident all over: ancient homes preserved and turned into small hotels; lots of private restaurants and shops; bike rentals; tour guides.  Everyone we interacted with was from the local area.  Traveling through the nearby countryside revealed what is evident from statistics: in this severely water-scarce part of China, earning a good living from farming is really difficult.  Tourism provides one of the few good alternatives to out-migration.

The family rides bikes around the inside of Pingyao's Ming Dynasty wall.
The notion of heritage protection and sustainable tourism as a road out of poverty is an idea that interior provinces are picking up on in a big way.  Last week the World Bank approved its first cultural and natural heritage protection project for China.  Gansu -- another poor, dry interior province – had the foresight to borrow World Bank funds to protect nine sites along a 1,700 km stretch of the ancient Silk Road and to develop the infrastructure for sustainable tourism ( see an audio slideshow).  Guizhou Province is next up with a project that aims to preserve both physical sites as well as living culture.  Some of China’s poorest provinces are showing the way with how economic development can be combined with cultural and natural heritage protection.


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