Tourism Suffers as Rebuilding Continues in Sichuan

It's been nearly one month since China's devastating earthquake. The government is focusing on rebuilding. In Chengdu, the local economy had been supported by tourism, but the quake changed that.

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In China, more troops are arriving in Sichuan Province today to help those already working to drain a large lake created by last month's earthquake. Chinese soldiers are using explosives and anti-tank weapons to blast away rock and mud so that the water in the lake will be able to drain out. Downstream, more than a million people are threatened with flooding.

The local economy has been severely affected by the quake, especially what once was a thriving tourist industry. NPR's Rob Gifford reports on that from Chengdu.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ROB GIFFORD: Several families are sitting around a large table having lunch outside a row of blue and white tents, their temporary home since the quake of May 12th shook their row of small stores on the road leading up to Qingcheng Shan. This is a holy Taoist mountain and a popular destination for Chinese and foreign tourists. These peoples' homes were only damaged by the quake, but their businesses have been destroyed.

Mr. MAY-CHUNG FU(ph) (Shop Owner): (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: There has not been a single visitor since the earthquake, says 38-year-old shop owner May-Chung Fu. If the tourists don't return, I'll have to head off to the city to find some other kind of work, he says. Across Sichuan Province, it's been a terrible year for tourism so far, and it hasn't just been the earthquake says Peter Goff, and Irishman who runs a bookstore and cafe in the provincial capital, Chengdu.

Mr. PETER GOFF (Bookstore and Cafe Owner, Chengdu): Initially, we had the protests in Tibet where the government closed off Tibet and restricted visas into the area. That was already playing a big factor. But then the earthquake, since that has played a major role, major tourist attractions here, for example, the panda base, this time last year were getting 5,000 visitors a day, this week, they're getting less than 10 visitors, 10 people per day visiting.

GIFFORD: The local tourism bureau says the closure of Tibet - for which Chengdu has always been the gateway - and now the earthquake will cost Sichuan billions of dollars. More broadly, however, the Sichuan economy is not expected to be so badly hit. The quake affected mainly rural areas in small towns, and not Chengdu, with its growing economy that has attracted foreign companies such as Intel to set up factories here. L.J. Chen, vice chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Chengdu, says he thinks the overall economy can recover quickly.

Mr. L.J. CHEN (Chairman, American Chamber of Commerce, Chengdu): We are here for the long term. You know, the last few weeks, we had the impact, but a lot of business resumed, some even one week after that. Some take a few weeks. But overall, we are quite optimistic. And it's American business here. We are going to be part of this. We're going to recover.

GIFFORD: But it's going to be more difficult for some of the ordinary Chinese people in Sichuan's poorer regions that were badly hit by the quake.

(Soundbite of machines, engines)

GIFFORD: Back hoes and digging equipment heave slowly along the main streets of the small town of Panhuan(ph), two hours drive from Chengdu and not far from the epicenter of the quake. About half the buildings in the town have collapsed, and everyone are living in tents. Looking at the devastation around her, 41-year-old Wu Shiaofu(ph) admits she's fortunate to be alive - her brother died in his apartment building - but she says she's lost everything.

Ms. WU SHIAOFU: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Wu was one of millions of Chinese who were living the dream of economic advancement. She opened her first small shop in 1990 and saved and saved until, in 1997, she was able to buy, for cash, a $15,000 apartment. That collapsed in the earthquake. The building that housed her store will have to be (unintelligible), and she's now had to set up a small stall beside the road.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

Ms. WU: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: We were planning to buy a car, she says, when the earthquake struck. She has no idea if the government will compensate her for her lost apartment or build her a new one. When asked if she feels after nearly 20 years of hard work that she's basically back to square one, she just nods her head and is silent.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Sichuan Province, China.

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