Bashang’s tourist trail

A holidaymaking boom on Beijing’s nearest grassland has lined the pockets of some – but worsened life for others. Zhou Wei went to the vacation town of Datan to see the impacts.

Beijing residents may remember seeing adverts for the Bashang Grassland: visit the nearest grassland to the city, get away from the noise, enjoy the cool evening air, roast a whole sheep. Every year, Bashang – in Hubei province – attracts visitors from the capital and further afield and, until recently, was one of the region’s hottest tourist destinations.

But lately this tourist boom has started to tail off – and you don’t see the adverts anymore. Some people have already forgotten about the place, while others complain it’s no longer any fun”.

Why is it no fun anymore? What impact has tourism had? On a windy spring day, accompanied by a colleague, I followed in the footsteps of these tourists and visited the once-fashionable Bashang Grasslands.

Head north from Beijing, pass the Great Wall’s Badaling, cross the Yan Mountains and you will reach Bashang, on the southern edge of the Mongolian Grasslands. The Bashang plains cover 350 square kilometres, but the tourism hub is the town of Datan, in the county of Fengning. Known for being Beijing’s closest grassland, it lies less than 300 kilometres from the capital, at an average height of 1,486 metres.

Our car wound through the grasslands, past holiday resorts and farm guesthouses, with their sales pitches painted onto whitewashed walls. However, in contrast to the tourist businesses, the rest of Datan and its surrounding villages are run down. Follow the village’s two short paved roads and you soon find small village courtyards and dirt tracks. Horses used for tourist rides are tied up by the road or quietly eating grass in the yards. The clean and stylish roadside buildings are often signposted as farmhouse restaurants. With the tourist season not yet started, Datan seems empty and quiet. It’s hard to believe that the town has been relying on tourism for over a decade.

We spoke to a Beijinger named Mr Zhao, who owned a stake in a farm guesthouse here from 1998 to 2007 and witnessed firsthand the changes over those 10 years. In 1998, Zhao, a keen photographer, visited Bashang and fell in love with the local scenery and culture. And so, with friends, he decided to open a guesthouse for tourists. He recalled that Fengning’s tourist trade first got going in June of 1997. The first time Zhao visited, there was only one proper holiday resort. When he started his business, the first round of tourism development was drawing to a close: in just one year, more than 20 resorts had opened up. 

Around 2002 or 2003, taking full weekends off work and owning private cars became more common in Beijing – and two-day excursions and self-drive holidays got going. Bashang was the obvious choice for those looking for a spring break or to dodge the summer heat and it became as fashionable as well-known seaside resort Beidaihe. Coach drivers often found themselves rushing between Beidaihe, Beijing and Bashang.

Between 2002 and 2006, the summer and autumn tourist seasons would see Bashang packed to capacity. Zhao said that the villagers could tell how well their neighbours’ businesses were doing by where their horses were: if the horses were off giving rides and the yard full of vehicles, business was good; if they were tied up and nobody was parked in the yard, business was slow.

The number of horses in the village reached as many as 600 or 700, and even that wasn’t enough at busy times. Spit-roasting whole sheep was another major draw: tourist websites featured images of a sheep cooking over an open fire. All the guesthouses had an iron spit, and sheep traders would gather at the gates with trailers full of live animals to sell. On the busiest nights, a village might get through 200 sheep.

In the early days, it only took two years to make back your investment. Figures Zhao obtained from the town hall show that average local income in 1996 was 1,000 yuan (US$155). By 2005, it had climbed to 5,000 yuan (US$773). The owner of another farm guesthouse, Ms Wang, explained that tourism is much more profitable than farming – farming only feeds the family, but tourism actually makes money. And so more and more locals and external investors piled into the tourism trade and heated competition led to a price war.

But while the idea that this was a way to make easy money caused many to jump on the bandwagon, those who invested late had to wait years to see a return. Several years of fierce competition saw most incoming investors leave and partnerships with Beijing travel agencies come to an end. It is now rare to see adverts for Bashang in Beijing. But the locals are still suffering the consequences of the tourism boom.

Locals say the grasslands are “no good” anymore – that they have been harmed by too much horse-riding. And it isn’t just the locals who complain: even visitors say the plains have lost some of their beauty. A type of grass known for only growing when the grasslands are unhealthy is now visible everywhere.

We saw large rubbish dumps outside all of the villages we visited, heaving with sodden trash and strewn with plastic bags. Zhao explained that a large farm guesthouse could host over 200 guests a week in peak season, producing three large barrels-worth of waste every day. And their village alone has 50 or 60 guesthouses and resorts of varying sizes.

Almost all rural areas have an annual fair, where local news is swapped and goods exchanged. Datan’s event is in July – tourist season. Zhao said that, in the past, goods on sale in the market were limited, but that once Beijingers started visiting the area, locals wanted to widen their offering, and so the Datan market is now home to fake products and low-quality goods. Worse, the market has grown bigger every year and when it’s over, the site is left covered with rubbish.

The pressure of the extra tourist population has also created hidden environmental problems. Villagers living downstream of Datan complain that the taste of their groundwater has changed – in the past, the water from six-metre to eight-metre deep wells was delicious. Now, it is undrinkable. A local shopkeeper, Mr Zhang, said that seepage pits under village homes used to filter waste-water can’t handle the extra load, and the groundwater has become badly polluted. His village lies downstream of Datan, and he has been affected by the problems.

Tourism also spurred construction – Zhalaying village, where Zhao lives, doubled in size during the 10-year tourist boom. Many buildings lie empty in winter, but are full to bursting in summer. Public roads and facilities have not been upgraded, and there’s a serious lack of overall planning and management, although the tourism bureau makes sure to get every penny of its “management fee” from the locals’ horse-riding income.

The village has expanded and an influx of wealthy people has pushed up house prices and living costs. “It’s the poor who suffer from tourism growth,” said Zhao, sighing. Zhang said that tourism lets some people get rich – but a greater number of poor people don’t see any benefit, and end up having to cope with a higher cost of living and the environmental costs. “If this place isn’t fun any more, Beijingers will simply travel further afield – but the locals are stuck here,” he said.

Grasslands expert Liu Shurun told us that Fengning is the source of Beijing’s Luan River, one of the major sources of sandstorms for Beijing and an extremely important environmental buffer for the city. This was once high-quality grassland, and while degradation is partly due to migration and farming, the changes inflicted on an environmentally vulnerable region by a decade or more of tourism cannot be ignored. 

In October last year, the resurfacing of the Beijing to Fengning road was completed. Locals say that better roads will mean more visitors: is a new grasslands tourist rush about to start?

Zhou Wei is associate editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office. Meng Si, managing editor, also contributed to this article.

Homepage image by Zhou Wei shows some of the impacts on the land of Bashang’s tourism industry.