Time to rethink tourist city construction craze
Updated: 2012-09-28 07:12
BEIJING - An ambitious plan to build a huge, 2.7-billion-yuan ($426 million) theme park based on a legendary love story in a small county in east China's Anhui Province has stirred heated debate recently.
Huaining, a county with a population of 700,000, is home to the tombs of Jiao Zhongqin and Liu Lanzhi, a tragic couple who -- the story goes -- broke up under pressure from their parents but reunited after committing suicide together.
Many people are wondering if the massive investment program based on a celebrated 1,000-year-old poem can really attract the tourist numbers the government expects and create enough economic returns.
The park has also reminded many of a failed Chinese tourist town in Henan Province's Runan County, branded the hometown of the "butterfly lovers," China's answer to Romeo and Juliet.
The town is desolate today as its supposed fame has failed to bring in tourists and investment. Eager to dig up cultural gold, the project has instead ground to an embarrassing standstill.
Many Chinese cities are nevertheless following suit, in the hope that past glories can bring prosperity in the present. Yet it is time to put a brake on this city construction extravaganza.
These projects were mostly carried out without consulting the public, an oversight which risks harming the interests of the masses and brewing mistrust between citizens and local governments.
The culture industry promises to drive domestic consumption, but spending billions to throw up a new "ancient" town on the basis of a fairytale or an ancient poem is a sheer abuse of public money.
The funding of the projects relies heavily on banks and real estate developers, which has caused great concern for their viability.
The local businessman investor behind Runan County's "butterfly lovers" project withdrew due to cash flow problems in his company, leaving unfinished roads and withered trees on the vast patch of land leased from villagers.
Yet an equally important force at play in Runan's cautionary tale is that potential punters may simply be unwilling to pay for a trip on a bumpy country road to see nothing but two tombs.
The construction craze may also pose a great financial risk to the government. As some projects struggle to woo private investors, many governments pin their hopes on the banks.
The reality is that it's very hard to recoup the investment solely through tourism in the way the government has anticipated.
The huge debts will be passed on to the next government and the public will suffer in the end.
And in many cases, the projects will lead to the relocation of thousands of local residents.
Experiences in some Chinese cities have shown that brand-new ancient towns have not necessarily brought more tourists, as they failed to replicate the essence of the former civilization. Besides, many genuine heritage sites were already destroyed years ago in the construction spree that came with China's modernization rush.
For the government, the desire to dismantle a city and reshape it is very intriguing as investment in construction drives up GDP growth. But for the sake of the people, local governments should cool down the investment craze.