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'I'm standing right above where my wife and son lived'

TOURISM is rebounding in many parts of Sichuan and many visitors say they want to support earthquake-hit areas by spending their money. Yao Minji talks to a widower selling flowers to tourists.

He Xiantong, 42, sells chrysanthemums at a small stand atop a mountain of earth and rubble - a gigantic grave. It's the Donghekou Earthquake Memorial Park, where his home stood before the earthquake.

"I'm standing right above where my wife and son used to live," says He, one of around 100 survivors of the village.

Around 110 meters beneath him, He's wife, son and more than 1,000 other villagers were buried when a mountain gave way during the earthquake last May 12.

Although the town government has allocated new rooms for them in the town, most villagers have chosen to remain where their family and friends were buried.

He, a migrant worker, survived the earthquake as he had gone to nearby cities for work years before the disaster. He returned after the quake to observe a traditional three-year mourning period.

"I don't know what to say. It's still so shocking, even though I've seen pictures of it online," says 32-year-old Nick Lok, an investment banker from Hong Kong who is living in Shanghai.

He stands at the donation box only a few steps from He's shop. He declines to give his Chinese name or say how much he has donated.

He writes "Hang On" in Chinese on a slip of paper.

According to 23-year-old Yong Lifang, one of the six tour guides of the park, all donations are used to build tourist shops run by survivors to earn a living.

He's shop is one of such. None of the six guides is from the village and Yong is the only one from quake-hit Qingchuan County.

Investment banker Lok, who came to visit during his annual break, says: "I've always heard about the beautiful scenery in the province and the earthquake made me put it at the top of my list."

Lok, who was born in London, had only heard of Qingchuan County, but not tiny Donghekou Village, 40 kilometers from the nearest tourist attraction,

After landing at Shuangliu Airport in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, Lok's girlfriend bought a "Panda" tourist card for one yuan (15 US cents) at the airport. It gives visitors free admission to 11 state-owned tourist attractions, including the famous Dujiangyan Irrigation System in Dujiangyan City, about an hour's drive from Chengdu.

Hundreds of other sites are free to the public on the one-year anniversary of the quake today.

Many visitors, like Lok and his girlfriend, only learned about the free-admission card at the airport.

"Many tourist sites are closed for reconstruction and I would have been disappointed if I had to buy a 90-yuan ticket to visit," says 36-year-old Yang Liwen visiting Lidui Park in Dujiangyan with her husband and eight-year-old son.

Yang, from Zhejiang Province, is a first-time visitor to Sichuan, like many others. She added more sites to their itinerary because they could use the Panda card.

Thousands of tourists poured in when the park re-opened on October 1, after months of urgent restoration of buildings and attractions. The May Day weekend also brought throngs of tourists.

Many tourists inquire about the earthquake and how badly the buildings were damaged. When they see a decrepit building, they ask if it was damaged by the quake. When they see newer buildings, they wonder if it was built after the quake.

One female staff member in her late 30s lives with her husband in simple reinforced buildings that used to house souvenir shops. Their third-grade son lives in a temporary school and only comes back for two days every month.

Her home, only steps away from Lidui Park, was destroyed.

Many park attractions, including major ones like Two Kings Temple, are still being reconstructed; completion is expected next year.

The construction work doesn't deter tourists who say they want "to support quake areas through tourism," a slogan spread throughout China and on the Internet.

Sichuan tourism revenue dropped sharply after the quake. In the year following, revenue was down 63.7 percent from the 6 billion yuan of the previous year.

But the revenue for 2009 so far has reached nearly 11 billion yuan, only down by 10.3 percent from the previous period. In January tourism revenue increased 45 percent year on year, the government reported.

During the past three-day May Day holiday, 326,400 tourists visited Dujiangyan, generating 128 million yuan in revenue. Half a year back in the week-long National Day holiday last year, when Dujiangyan reopened the tourism to the public after the May 12 earthquake, 206,600 people visited which yielded 43.19 million yuan.


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