Tourism boom opens the road to riches

Updated: 2013-11-07 07:54

By Hu Yongqi and Li Yingqing (China Daily)

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The returnees

The boom in tourism encouraged many Tibetans to start their own businesses. In the 1980s, around 2,000 exiled Tibetans who had fled to northern India after disturbances in 1959 returned to China with their families.

Although most of them went to the Tibet autonomous region, others traveled to areas with large Tibetan populations. In Diqing, one of four major areas for Tibetans in China, many returnees opted to work in the tourist industry.

Drakpa Kalden, the owner of a well-known Tibetan-style hotel in Shangri-La, the Arro Khampa Boutique, which means "Friend, I bid you welcome", is one of the children born in exile who moved to China when their parents returned.

The reform and opening-up policy provided the returnees and their families with favorable treatment such as permanent residence, land and housing.

Drakpa said his family was homesick during their two decades in India. "I studied as a monk at a Tibetan monastery in northern India, learning some Hindi and the Lhasa dialect. When I saw the sun, I missed home so much that I meditated in a highly emotional state," he said.

In 1987, Drakpa arrived in China aged 16. When he was 17, he began attending Hongwei Primary School in Zhongdian, where the young students called him "older brother". He won the highest scores and managed to complete primary school in just two and a half years, half the usual time.

Drakpa underwent an incredibly difficult first year in Shangri-La. When he went to the market, the vendors were reluctant to talk to him because of his poor grasp of Mandarin.

In the 1990s, work in the public services was highly prized because it offered an "iron rice bowl", or a job for life, meaning there was no need to worry about the future.

When Drakpa began looking for a job it was a thankless task because the local economy was weak before the tourism boom. However, his language skills in Hindi, Tibetan, English and Chinese made him popular with employers, and he eventually gained work as a translator for the customs office.

"In the beginning, I didn't know how to check the visas, but I completed all the assignments as best I could and became one of the top translators there," he said.

Later, Drakpa was transferred to the Diqing Commission for Nationalities and Religions, where, as an ethnic Tibetan, the regular visits to monasteries and daily interaction with the monks suited his temperament, he said.

Two years later, Drakpa decided to join the tourist industry.

"I quit my job with the government and got a bonus payoff of 25,000 yuan. My sister questioned why I had left such a good job and didn't talk to me for two months," he said.

Six years ago, he met a group of tourists from Austria and the United States. They invited him to attend programs in their countries and improve his knowledge of the tourist industry and hotel management. In 2009, he opened his 10-million-yuan hotel. With just 17 rooms, the lavishly decorated hotel is usually fully booked all year round.