Visiting ethnic minority villages anywhere, in our experience, is a hit-or-miss affair. More often than not, the locals receive little, if any, benefit from the visit. If there is a tour guide, he likely has no connection to the community visited, possesses limited proficiency in the local dialect, and pockets the lion’s share of the tourist dollar. Often, the visit feels more like a trip to the zoo — gawk and point– than a meeting of two cultures. Combine this dynamic here with a rural Chinese populace that has yet to fully grasp the interests of the typical Western tourist nor been able to figure out how to profit from them, and you have a recipe for mutual frustration and distrust.
Last weekend, we joined five Peace Corps friends for a trip to a series of Dong villages in the vicinity of Rongjiang in Guizhou’s diverse south east. The final day saw us visit two Dong towns. Xindi was first on the itinerary. The town is known, at least to English-speaking, Lonely Planet-toting globetrotters, for its large drum tower and nothing else. (Google tells me that Xindi is also a planet on Star Trek. Go figure.)
The single attraction and its resulting guidebook entry was the kiss of death as far as I was concerned. I imagine the typical tourist visit goes something like this: A white Toyota van drops off a handful of Nikon-toting tourists. The tourists cross one of two beautiful wooden bridges but take no notice because the drum tower is immediately ahead. They snap some photos of the tower and the adjacent rainwater collection pond and perhaps thrust their cameras in the faces of some old folks or cute children for variety. If they are Chinese they will surely photograph themselves with the tower. Then realizing they haven’t eaten lunch, they return to the van five minutes after they’ve arrived. Note that no money exchanges hands. Repeat this scene over and over again, day after day. In fact, as our van pulled away, we caught sight of a pair of Western tourists, cameras at the ready, approaching the drum tower from a different path. This in a province that sees precious few Western visitors.
After all our travels, CeCe and I are acutely sensitive to the reception we receive in places like this. So I was little surprised that we were given a lukewarm reception when we stepped out of our van. In most places in Guizhou, seven lowei is enough to stop traffic. But not in Xindi. It was instantly clear to me that the locals had seen their share of drive-through tourists only in town to cross of the drum tower off their list. But we pressed on. We might as well see it, we figured. Xindi is a quite an attractive town, mind youm aside from the garbage problem that afflicts many small towns in China and elsewhere. It’s compact and comprised of entirely of traditional wooden buildings connected by a haphazard assortment of alleys. The two gorgeous bridges spanning the river are certainly worth mention. It struck more than one of us as having a medieval feel. We were charmed by the locale but not the locals.
Our distaste was sealed when no less than ten different villagers either refused to offer CeCe the use of their toilet or pointed in the direction of a non-existent one. (But who can blame them when the average tourist just takes, takes, takes?) Our Peace Corps friends provided translation assistance, so there was little room for misunderstanding. CeCe and two others resorted to relieving themselves a pig sty in an out of the way alley, hoping to avoid detection. Meanwhile, our other companions ventured far deeper into this small town than the vast majority of tourists ever bother to.
But to their credit, they were committed to contributing to the local economy and, after some searching, found some souvenirs. We walked away with a few bits of embroidered clothing and some traditionally-styled silver jewelry. All were modern and most were produced with tourists in mind.
But by and large, our visit was tourism at its ugliest. The solution is pretty simple, at least to me. Charge a 10 RMB ($1.50) admission fee to visit the drum tower and distribute the proceeds equally across the town. A thoughtful and progressive tourist board could then perhaps instruct locals on the culinary, consumer, and comfort preferences of visitors, so that they could further profit on the slow but steady trickle of visitors.
Our visit to Xindi was particularly instructive for me because I think that finding a way to incorporate sustainable (agricultural?) tourism into my career plans might not be a bad idea. Until it’s time to cross that bridge, I’m heartened that we managed to follow this experience up with an stunningly enjoyable visit to Sijai, another Dong village in the area.
To be continued…
Thanks to Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, one of our Peace Corps companions, for letting us use some of her photos here. For more, visit: http://www.bekawp.com.