Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tourism boom threatens China's heritage sites

In a quiet corner of southern China's Pearl River Delta, hundreds of abandoned watchtowers dot a landscape of water-logged rice paddies, lush bamboo groves and ancient villages.


Bristling with battlements and turrets, the ornate towers were built by families and villages in need of protection during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when much of the country was controlled by warlords and banditry was rife.

Now a UNESCO world heritage site, these days the Kaiping watchtowers, or diaolou as they are known locally, face a threat of a different nature -- the incredible boom in Chinese tourism.

The tiny village of Zili, which has the largest collection of towers, attracts dozens of tour buses on weekends. Their passengers are ushered around the towers by guides sporting red flags and microphones rigged up to loud speakers.

Sports car damages ancient Chinese site They chase the skinny chickens that roam about the dirt paths, snap photos, sample "peasant family food" and buy rustic bamboo souvenirs, while the village's few remaining elderly residents sit on small plastic stools and look on bemused.

It's a scene that's played out at other UNESCO sites across China, where world heritage status is increasingly being used as a economic vehicle to develop backward regions, says Chris Ryan, a professor of tourism at The University of Waikato in New Zealand.

"The idea behind having this status is that there are conservation, preservation and restoration issues, where in China it seems to be primarily geared toward promoting tourism and its economic benefit," says Ryan, who has studied Kaiping and another world heritage site in Anhui province, eastern China.



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