Tourists Overwhelm China's 'Shangri-La'

Tourists crowd up the steps of the 300-year-old Songzanling monastery.

hide captionTourists crowd up the steps of the 300-year-old Songzanling monastery, on the outskirts of Shangri-La.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Local residents dance in the square of the old town. i i

hide captionResidents of Zhongdian — now renamed Shangri-La — dance every night in the square of the old town. The tourist traffic has revitalised the area's traditional culture. As Director of Tourism Awa puts it, "Now we see that our own traditions are actually worth money."

Louisa Lim, NPR
Local residents dance in the square of the old town.

Residents of Zhongdian — now renamed Shangri-La — dance every night in the square of the old town. The tourist traffic has revitalised the area's traditional culture. As Director of Tourism Awa puts it, "Now we see that our own traditions are actually worth money."

Louisa Lim, NPR
Tibetans sell scarves woven using traditional looms in the old town. i i

hide captionTibetans sell scarves woven using traditional looms in the old town.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Tibetans sell scarves woven using traditional looms in the old town.

Tibetans sell scarves woven using traditional looms in the old town.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Abu Wangdui is besieged by visitors to his house. i i

hide captionAbu Wangdui, 77, is besieged by visitors inside his 400-year-old house. He complains that neither he nor his house can withstand the pressure of so many visitors.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Abu Wangdui is besieged by visitors to his house.

Abu Wangdui, 77, is besieged by visitors inside his 400-year-old house. He complains that neither he nor his house can withstand the pressure of so many visitors.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Young monks at the Songzanling monastery. i i

hide captionYoung monks debate inside Songzanling monastery. One monk conceded that the hordes of visitors reduce the amount of time the monks spend studying.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Young monks at the Songzanling monastery.

Young monks debate inside Songzanling monastery. One monk conceded that the hordes of visitors reduce the amount of time the monks spend studying.

Louisa Lim, NPR

Shangri-La conjures up images of utopia, an imaginary unspoiled natural haven. But now Shangri-La really exists in the form of a quaint town in southwest China, which shares a mountainous beauty and Tibetan cultural heritage with its literary inspiration, James Hilton's Lost Horizon.

However, the real-life Shangri-La is largely a marketing ploy — and it's tackling a whole new set of issues brought by its fame.

Shangri-La has long existed in popular culture. Originally inspired by Hilton's 1933, it originally referred to a mythical valley of long life, high culture and advanced plumbing.

Yet today, Shangri-La exists as a real place on a map. It's a town in northwest Yunnan province China, which was rechristened five years ago Shangri-La or Xianggelila.

The bustling streets are packed with vendors selling Tibetan trinkets, yak skulls and hiking gear. I feel about as far as possible from that mythological paradise.

"It's too new and there are too many shopping centers," tourist Emmanuel Viabell says.

Tourist Vanessa Partington says it's "different from what I initially expected. I thought Shangri-la would [be] bare and very natural, and we get to this city called Shangri-La."

The tourist rush has revitalized this area's traditions. Indeed, even the old town itself is a triumph of reinvention, having been largely demolished and rebuilt in traditional style as part of the repackaging strategy.

Director of tourism Awa sounds more like a salesman.

"We want to promote and build on the Shangri-La brand," he says, even though tourism has increased 700-fold in the last decade.

He quotes figures showing how incomes have shot up exponentially. But not all of the town's 50,000 residents are happy.

Abu Wangdui, 77, pleads with tourists to get out of his gated 400-year-old wooden house.

"There are too many visitors nowadays," he says. "I used to welcome them, but now I'm fed up. And my old house can't take it either."

With 3.3 million visitors last year — and a 20-percent increase expected this year — traffic jams are common.

At one of the local Buddhist temples, a small souvenir shop is staffed by monks selling necklaces and bracelets. The monks say that all the objects they are selling are for religious use and what they're doing is for the good of the temple.

However, to be involved in this financial transaction day in day out seems far from the type of spiritual life that many of the monks may have been seeking when they came here.

The tourists do influence the amount of time the monks spend studying, a monk called Wanzha says, as he pounds on yak butter to make altar decorations.

New temples are being built, showing the upside of tourism.

But local photographer Zeren Pingcuo complains that the benefits of the boom aren't being shared equally. He says outsiders are cashing in, while a lack of education means few Tibetans are getting rich.

"Now it's very different from the Shangri-La in the book," he says. "Before, we lived in harmony as we had equal wealth. Our traditional culture was well-preserved. Now there are lots of sharp conflicts of interest."

The area's culture and its fragile ecosystem are under threat from tourism, he says.

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