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October 31, 2018

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Rural tourism: Success depends on more than just green fields and a nostalgic idyll

EXPERTS from home and abroad exchanged their views on how to leverage local resources in rural tourism, and shared their insights into the many pitfalls that could be avoided, at a forum held over the weekend.

The forum, the Third World Rural Tourism Conference and Belt and Road World Rural Tourism Huzhou Asia-Pacific Summit, was held in Yuanxiang, Miaoxi Town, Huzhou, Zhejiang Province.

In his keynote speech, Chris Bottrill, chairman of the Pacific-Asia Travel Association (PATA), explained the importance of cultural integrity and authenticity.

The importance of culture lies in the fact that it connects us with our past, and with each other. “It differentiates us, it gives us direction, and it defines us,” he said.

There are many threats to culture.

There is disneyfication, where the distinction is blurred between tradition and entertainment, and caricature becomes part of what we identify as culture.

Another threat is cultural appropriation, as cultural elements which may have deep meaning in their original culture are reduced to exotica by those from another culture, to the degree that it becomes difficult to distinguish appropriation from appreciation.

UNESCO has identified a range of other threats, including conflict, looting, theft, trafficking, deterioration, neglect, pollution and climate change.

Rural tourism can be quite an asset in protecting culture, as it connects us with our past, and connects us with our roots. Key to this is authenticity and the idea of being genuine, real and true to the culture.

As Bottrill illustrated, it is easy to recreate the Eiffel Tower, but the question is, should we?

“Take time to understand, and learn the stories of the local people. Understand what they value, what we call cultural capital,” he said.

The environment is also central to the protection of culture, as climate change is having a profound effect on tourist resources and the life of the people.

“I have been in villages where life has been tremendously affected as a result of a change in fishing cycles ... We cannot protect this culture unless we are all in it together. Cultural integrity is critical to the authenticity of discovery.”

During the panel discussion, John Kodolwski, CEO and strategic advisor of PATA, mentioned the remarkable transformation since he last visited Huzhou.

He said in the international market the concept of rural tourism conjures up a very different picture to what has developed there.

“In Australia, my home country, for example, the perception of rural tourism is generally a place with a more basic, raw experience, a connection with land, the people and environment. That picture is however changing, though often not as rapidly as what we see here,” Kodolski said.

He said the success in bringing out the essentials of the rural atmosphere was remarkable, particularly in view of the fact that this is done in a responsible and sustainable manner.

“Whoever individually or collectively managed this evolution should be congratulated for their foresight, hard work and dedication,” he added.

The integration of the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors of the local economy with tourism as a key driver is a remarkable feat, one worth emulation, as many urbanites come to villages to destress and reconnect to nature, Kodolwski concluded.

Shi Peihua, secretary general of China Tourism Think Tank and professor at Nankai University, pointed out that 70 percent of tourist resources are in rural areas.

Developing these resources entails introducing consumption, stimulating culture, extending the concept of sharing and leveraging of new social platforms. As a byproduct, there are plenty of opportunities for the redistribution of wealth.

Human touch

Xu Fan, a member of Tourism Expert Committee of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, said great foresight was needed. As urban citizens escape the concrete jungle, there arises the issue of whether villagers are equal to the task of ministering to the spiritual needs of these alien urbanites. It might go beyond a mere weekend escape, and include those who choose to stay here during old age or illness.

This might result in the need for more quality hospitals and access to medical care and coverage at a location far from one’s home, so as to ease the minds of those who choose stay indefinitely. Once the hospitals are there, there is the need to study their impact on other industries. Xu also warned against the danger of overtourism and excessive exploitation of resources.

Zheng Jianxiong, honorary chairman of the Taiwan Rural Tourism Association, elaborated on the inherent difficulty of peasants evolving into homestay operators. Rural tourism arises when people have more money and leisure time, and as urbanites seek a break from the city. Peasant life is rooted in agriculture, but it is evolving to include other industries, suggesting a significant learning curve for former peasants.

When villagers assume more than one role, they need significantly more by way of cultivation and nurturing.

Locals should treat their resources gently and kindly, rather than manhandling them.

“The more resources you preserve in a pristine state, the more likely these resources might be available in the future for further utilization,” Zheng said.

“Unlike manufacturing, agriculture does not place such a premium on scale. Thus be content with small scale and diversity. Engaged in what you have, avoid homogenization, and take advantage of distinctively local resources,” he continued.

Zheng emphasized the invisible resources of the human touch, rooted in communication. “If you want others to have affection for you, you should let yourself be understood. The best scenery is not physical, but human. Understand this, and your resources promise to multiply infinitely,” he concluded.

Cao Hu, global partner and president of KMG China, also warned against homogenization. “With the rise of rural tourism, there is the need to guard against homogenization of products, and a need for precise positioning in the market. There is a call for entrepreneurship, and there is an even stronger mandate for rejecting the impulse to embrace all, appreciating the art of refraining from doing something in order to do something,” Cao said.


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