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December 28, 2009

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Bethune museum and Canada brace for more Chinese tourists

WHEN China recently announced it would make Canada Approved-Destination Status (ADS) for leisure travel, paving the way for more Chinese tourists, the news brought a huge smile to the face of Scott Davidson.

Fewer Canadians are happier with the decision than Davidson. He is the site manager for Bethune Memorial House, a museum in Gravenhurst, Ontario, which documents the life of late Dr Norman Bethune.

The facility received 2.5 million Canadian dollars (US$2.3 million) from the Canadian government in October to fund an expansion.

The house is about an hour and a half's drive from Toronto, Canada's largest city.

According to a survey by the Conference Board of Canada, ADS is expected to boost the yearly rate of travel to Canada from China by up to 50 percent by 2015.

Exactly 70 years after his death in 1939, the memory of Canadian-born Bethune remains a living link between Canada and China. And as Canada and China look forward to the new calendar year, there are signs that Bethune's posthumous role as a symbol of friendly Canadian-Chinese ties will become more important in 2010 - and beyond.

Growing up in the town of Gravenhurst, Bethune became a physician during World War II. In the 1930s, his political sympathies led him to work as a battlefield doctor on the side of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.

Bethune later traveled to China, where his efforts to save the lives of Chinese soldiers during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) earned him the gratitude of Chairman Mao Zedong.

At the news of Bethune's death in 1939, Mao mourned the loss of the great doctor and internationalist by saying: "This foreigner made light of traveling thousands of miles to help us, selflessly adopted the liberation cause of the Chinese people as his own. No one failed to express admiration for Dr Bethune whenever his name was mentioned."

After the founding of New China in 1949, Mao's remarks were included in high school textbooks and has since been read by generations of Chinese students.

Davidson is anticipating an increase in Chinese visitors making their way to the 800-square-foot Bethune House, which he has managed for eight years. "We're working hard to provide an even richer experience to visitors," the 39-year-old site manager says.

Almost 90 percent of Bethune Memorial House's 10,000 annual visitors are ethnic Chinese - 45 percent are from the Chinese mainland, and another 45 percent are Chinese Canadians, Davidson says. Many visitors hail from Toronto, often second- or third-generation Chinese-Canadian immigrants.

"They want to introduce their children and grandchildren to a piece of history that connects China and Canada together," says Davidson.

In the past, Chinese visitors were mostly business groups participating in officially approved trips to the symbolic "friendship bridge" between China and Canada.

The house officially opens from June to October, but still receives tourists from China in the winter.

"After approved-destination status, we're expecting to see more visitors from the Chinese mainland, not only to the house but also Gravenhurst," says Davidson. Davidson knows more than 60 words in Chinese, learning from tourists. He has visited China three times to attend Bethune commemorative events.

"Bethune's life story has come to embody, to epitomize the friendship between the two countries," says Davidson.

Bethune Memorial House was created in 1972, just as China-Canada bilateral ties were established.

"Our site has grown the friendship between the two countries," Davidson says.

Canadian government funds will expand the entire area from 650 square meters to 2,800 square meters to accommodate more exhibits about Bethune's life and why he remains a well-known figure in China and Canada.

Expansion will be completed in March 2011. Some building plans will be unveiled during the G8 summit in June 2010 in the Muskoka area, in an effort to attract international media attention.

Davidson hopes some world leaders will take part in the unveiling ceremonies.

The expansion is expected to generate excitement in the Chinese-Canadian community and visitors will be able to see how Canada has increased awareness of Bethune's contributions.

New exhibits will present more materials documenting Bethune's life, including pictures of his life in China.

In the peak fall season, the house receives more than 1,000 visitors a day.

Many people visit Bethune House while traveling through Muskoka to appreciate the autumn foliage. It was not known whether it will be open year-round.

Davidson says Gravenhurst's location is attractive, not far from Toronto or from Algonquin Park nature preserve. It's on the way to Ottawa, the capital, and Montreal.

Gravenhurst has been a tourist destination for almost 100 years, drawing visitors from Toronto and the northern United States. One tour possibility would take visitors from Toronto to Gravenhurst and then Ottawa.

The University of Toronto, where Bethune completed his medical degree, could be another place of interest.

Bethune also worked in Montreal for eight years from 1928 to 1936. This year, to mark the 70th anniversary of Bethune's death, Montreal, Quebec, organized a yearlong "Homage to Norman Bethune" to explain what inspired him to help people.

Tourists can buy Bethune-related souvenirs. In March, Chinese-Canadian author Adrienne Clarkson published a book about Bethune, highlighting his work as a surgeon, political activist and humanitarian. It is the first book about Bethune to be published in many years.

Bethune Memorial House also works with many local tourism partners, such as Muskoka Steamships offering boat tours of the lakes where Bethune played as a boy.

Davidson has received many inquiries from Canadian tourism organizations, concerning Approved-Destination Status.

"They want to know how to attract tourists from the Chinese mainland. Muskoka residents are very proud of having Norman Bethune, because he is the most famous Canadian in the world. They're excited about a local attraction drawing Chinese people to explore Canada," he says.

Davidson started working at the Bethune House in 1994 and expected to only stay a year.

"Bethune's life story has an important lesson for our Canadian young people - no matter where you are from, no matter what your background is, whether you are rich or poor, if you have a kind heart, you can help people around the world," he says.

A recent 40-day national poll in China asked which "foreign friends have influenced China."

Bethune topped the listed with 4.7 million votes.


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