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Quake tourism - a benefit or a burden?

IN the run-up to the first anniversary of the devastating Sichuan earthquake, the ruins are becoming tourist attractions. Wu Chen looks at the controversy and how it has affected some.

Near Beichuan old county town, destroyed in last year's May 12 earthquake, Gong Shuqing is opening her booth selling ethnic Qiang knick-knacks to tourists.

Wearing a red T-shirt, embroidered waistcoat, and a big smile, 36-year-old Gong looks youthful.

The tourists who come to buy from her have no idea that just 100 meters away under the ruins lies her husband, one of 4,700 people still officially listed as missing. With the 15,600 confirmed deaths, the county lost two-thirds of its population in one day.

Before the earthquake, Gong's husband was a construction foreman in the fast-developing county.

"He cared very much about me and would not let me go out to work, except for doing some light housework around the home," says Gong.

The breadwinner left two sons, aged 3 and 12, and his parents for Gong to support.

Pushed to make a living, Gong could not afford to immerse herself in grief.

The housewife became a souvenir vendor in November and earns about 1,000 yuan (US$150) a month, enough for the family's daily needs.

Gong likes working near the ruins of the old county town. "I feel closer to him," she says. "I believe his soul is still there.

"My love and whole life is in that county."

In the run-up to the first anniversary of the quake, the ruins, including Beichuan, are becoming tourist attractions.

Qingchuan, another quake-torn county in Sichuan Province, opened the first earthquake theme park, Donghekou, on November 12, and in the five months since has received 250,000 visitors.

Sichuan, home to giant pandas, scenic nature reserves and ancient cultures, has long been a tourist destination.

More than 7 million people traveled to its quake zones during the Chinese New Year, according to the provincial tourism bureau.

The so-called "quake ruins tourism" brought 1.87 billion yuan to the province, contributing 40 percent of then total revenue for the week-long holiday.

Tourists, however, have also triggered controversy on the Internet.

"Making the disaster-hit area a place of entertainment is disrespectful to the dead, and will hurt their families deeply," said one posting.

Another commentator called "52zuguo" questioned the purpose of quake ruins protection: "It should be cherishing the memory of the dead and helping disaster prevention and relief, rather than making money."

Xi Hui, 30, who lives in a makeshift home in Beichuan's Leigu Township, agrees.

Xi says many tourists to the ruins are merely satisfying their curiosity and this makes the survivors uncomfortable.

"They haven't had the experience of losing a close family in a massive disaster," says Xi who lost his father and 27-year-old brother. "They don't really understand our sorrow."

His mother is still inconsolable. "She chose to escape from the grief," he says. "We never talk about the past with her. And she didn't return to the county on the Tomb-Sweeping Day in early April."

Xi worries that tourists who pour into the old county town just aggravate her grief.

"She can't control her sadness when she thinks of the disaster."

He hopes the old county will be protected from tourists in order to let the dead rest in peace.

Lin Jizhong, deputy director of Beichuan Culture and Tourism Bureau, refutes suggestions the county is in the business of disaster tourism: "We, too, oppose visits to the quake zone as entertainment."

He says the government has strengthened controls, banning tourist buses and visitors from entering the old county and protecting it with a 2-meter-high wire fence.

Police guard the locked gate to the old county seat. Visitors, in twos and threes, walk near the gate or climb a nearby hill to look down on it.

However, for Wang Zhengcai, fewer tourists mean less income.

Wang, 56, a construction worker before the quake, lost his wife in the disaster.

Late last year, inspired by a neighbor selling video discs about the quake, he applied for a license to run the stall closest to the locked gate, selling earthquake picture albums and discs.

"I was there during the quake," he says, turning to a page in a book showing a picture of two bodies under huge rocks titled "Xiaohe Street."

Wang earned about 600 yuan a month before the ban on tourist buses, barely enough for him and his wife's brother to live on.

He supports opening the ruins to tourists: "People from across the country and the rest of the world have helped us a lot. It's understandable they want to see the quake-hit areas for themselves."

"I only sold one disc till 1pm today," he says.

Although he is unwilling to even glance at the video himself, Wang feels it is the only way he can make a living.

"I can never forget my wife and the quake, but life has to go on. This is reality."


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