China turns history into cash

Much of the modern era has been unkind to what remains of the country's glorious dynasties and numerous cultural sites, but a preservationist awareness is beginning to take hold.

An ancient military demonstration held at Daming Palace National Heritage Park in Xi'an.
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The flat expanse in front of the rebuilt Danfeng Gate in the northern part of the city of Xi'an is no less impressive than Tiananmen Square in its vastness.

People walking across it appear as ants, while a colourful military re-enactment at the far end looks so tiny it brings to mind action on the screen of a miniature hand-held computer game.

It is startling to think that just two and a half years ago, this slightly barren expanse was part of a bustling neighbourhood with 100,000 residents.

In a project said by officials to have cost 12 billion yuan (Dh6.62bn), the householders were paid off and moved, their homes demolished and a supersized public space created.

The Danfeng Gate itself, which dates from the Tang dynasty more than 1,300 years ago, was rebuilt from scratch as a museum - there was almost nothing left of the original - while, nearby, contractors created a park with lakes, sculptures and a model of Daming Palace, the district's original grand centrepiece.

Surrounding land was sold off to help finance the scheme, the central part of which is fenced off as another tourist attraction in this Shaanxi province city.

Xi'an, one of China's four ancient capitals and also the eastern end of the fabled Silk Road, additionally has attractive pagodas, drum and bell towers and, just outside the city and most famous of all, the Terracotta Army.

Visitors were first allowed into the redeveloped Daming Palace National Heritage Park on October 1, China's National Day.

"Maybe people know the Terracotta warriors in Xi'an, but I believe in future when people come to Xi'an, they will come to Daming Palace and not only the Terracotta warriors," says Zhou Bing, a director in the local municipality.

A trip to the new visitors centre shows no expense has been spared. An IMAX cinema screens a specially created short film about a romance between two young members of the ruling elite of centuries ago.

While the issue of whether there were problems linked to the shifting of 100,000 people are slightly skirted over by local officials - they insist everyone was happy with the offer of compensation and a new home - that the project will draw in visitors seems more certain. The aim is to attract 300,000 foreign tourists from the more than 50 million who travel to China annually.

"This project shows the combination of modern development and ancient heritage," Mr Zhou says. "This should be an example for other cities."

There is probably no country with a greater sense of its own history than China, with its millennia of dynasties.

Yet the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution and the breathless development of the past three decades have obliterated many reminders of that heritage. Three years ago, Qiu Baoxing, a vice minister in the ministry of housing and urban-rural development, warned of "a thousand cities having the same appearance".

Leo Yatming Sin, a professor in the School of Hotel and Tourism Management in The Chinese University of Hong Kong, acknowledges that a great deal of cultural heritage that could have attracted tourists has been lost but believes there is now greater appreciation of its importance.

"Sometimes they have sacrificed cultural heritage for development," he says. "Now many government officials have noticed cultural heritage is important for attracting tourists, [so] now they start thinking about preserving."

In the south of Xi'an, efforts have been made to ensure that new developments at least retain an essence of the city's glorious past. Many of the recent buildings in Qujiang New District, including a sweeping boulevard with sculptures of emperors and warriors on horseback, are built with traditional architectural motifs, a welcome change from the sometimes-bland new residential developments sprouting in countless Chinese cities.

"We need to combine the modern face and the ancient face to display a new kind of city to people around the world," says a spokeswoman for the district.

"Xi'an has a long history, and the rich cultural heritage decides the development of the modern city."

It is no surprise Xi'an is focusing increasingly on attracting tourists, because tourism in China is booming.

The global economic slump may have led to a slight decline in the number of foreign visitors - from 54.7 million in 2007 it fell to 53 million in 2008 and 50.9 million last year - but thanks to China's economic growth, domestic tourism has continued to expand.

Last year, domestic tourists made 1.9 billion trips within China, up 11 per cent on 2008, according to the National Tourism Administration, helping revenue in the sector grow 9 per cent to 1.26 trillion yuan.

In Beijing, there were 9.3 million tourist arrivals over the week-long National Day holiday this year, an increase of 13.7 per cent. Revenue over the same period rose 21.7 per cent to 6.03bn yuan. Again, it was Chinese people - Beijing residents and people from outside the capital - who fuelled the increase.

Mr Sin expects continued growth, saying infrastructure improvements will spur more domestic travel.

"With the high-speed [rail] system improving, you open the market and more people can travel from one city to another in a short time," he says. "It will enhance the motivation of people to travel from one place to another."

China has more than 7,500km of high-speed rail lines, and the ministry of railways plans to increase this figure to 16,000km by 2020.

"The economic growth will continue for the coming years so … for the tourism industry, it is very optimistic," Mr Sin says.