ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
More now on the Sichuan quake. You may recall that after September 11th, people from all over the world traveled to Ground Zero in New York to pay their respects and take photos of the twisted wreckage. Well, something similar has happened in China since the earthquake. With the crowds comes this central question, is earthquake tourism simply tasteless, or might it be the way forward for China's devastated Sichuan province? In the first of a three-part series, NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Sichuan.
LOUISA LIM: I'm now at a most unlikely tourist destination. I'm standing on a platform, looking down at the devastated town of Beichuan where 15,000 people are known to have died in the earthquake. The town was sealed off by the government, it's ruins left standing as a memorial. And now, thousands of people come here every week to peer down at the ruins in the latest example of what's become a sort of earthquake tourism.
Mrs. WEN: (Speaking Chinese)
LIM: I want a picture for a memento, says Mrs. Wen who'd climbed over the railings to pose for a photo against a backdrop of desolation and heartbreak. I'm taking the pictures home to show my family. She's traveled 120 miles to come here on a company day trip with 300 colleagues. Some have lit incense sticks in a makeshift shrine. The local government hopes visitors like Mrs. Wen will stimulate the economy here. It's spending almost $3 billion on tourism to Beichuan, including building a National Earthquake Museum and quake-relief training center here. It hopes tourism will account for 20 percent of the future GDP of the county, up from 8 percent before the earthquake. However, the ruined town will remain as it is, with corpses left untouched under the wreckage as a memorial. For many, like this American teacher, who's worked in Sichuan for seven years, seeing the devastation wreaked by nature is a sobering, emotional experience.
Mr. RANDY SIMON (American Teacher): All my students live in areas like this. I feel like I've come to pay my respects to my family really, in a way.
LIM: Randy Simon feels ambivalent about the future plans for Beichuan.
Mr. SIMON: As a Westerner, I would not like to think about that being my hometown. I don't know enough about, maybe enough about the culture to understand their reasons for wanting to turn this into a park. But, maybe this is the best way to honor them and respect them.
(Soundbite of music)
LIM: The hilly path up to an observation post is lined with stalls selling before-and-after pictures of Beichuan and DVDs shot after the earthquake. Some have even set up televisions showing the footage, shots of themselves, or people like themselves covered in blood, weeping, cradling the bodies of dead family members. They may be selling their grief, but they are above all, finding ways to survive.
Mr. BAI SHANG (Resident, Beichuan): (Through translator) The disaster is already in the past. People now have to stand up and face their lives.
LIM: Twenty six-year old Bai Shang was from Beichuan and lost his house in the earthquake. He's a natural showman, whose easy patter about the destroyed city gathers a crowd. He gestures to a photo of a bench, a couple of chairs, and a plastic basin labeled, "all that was left from my house." Then he admits it was actually his friend's house. He welcomes the tourists, saying at least he can earn a couple of dollars a day.
Mr. SHANG: (Through translator) Before, I was working in a factory making toys for export to the U.S., but the global financial crisis made our company go bankrupt and send its 2,000 workers home. It's not easy to find work now, so we've come back here to try to cover our living expenses.
LIM: Amid the hubbub, one old man stands silent, his head craned over the platform. Wang Guangxi is looking down at his house, his restaurant, and the place where his 46-year-old son died. He says he feels comfort among the hundreds of strangers here.
WANG GUANGXI (Resident, Beichuan): (Through translator) Every day I come to take a look, I feel pain in my heart, because I lost my son here. It's a good thing people come to show their condolences to those who passed away.
LIM: Farther down the hillside, Mike Liu and his wife pick their way across the mud to peer through an eight-foot-high fence. They're pointing at the pile of concrete rubble on the other side, which is all that remains of Beichuan High School. A thousand students died here; some bodies are still buried under the rubble. Mike Liu is in the travel industry. He calls himself a disaster victim, too, but his wife's designer handbag and his fur-lined cardigan mark him out as obviously wealthy.
Mr. MIKE LIU (Resident, Beichuan) (Chinese spoken)
LIM: Beichuan's prospects are very bright, he says, and getting better all the time.
LIM: His attitude is a model of Sichuanese pragmatism. The earthquake was a catastrophe, he says, but it will be good for the tourist industry. Louisa Lim, NPR News Beichuan County, China.
SIEGEL: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.