The “Exotic” Minority in Western China: Why Domestic Ethnic Tourism in China May be Doing More Harm than Good

A Tibetan homestay in Jiuzhaigou National Park (Image by Stephanie Zughbi; used with permission).

Pacific Prospective features the research of graduate students.

Memo #241

By Brianna Botchweyblsb2 [at] cam.ac.uk

In western China, domestic tourism is on the rise and ethnic tourism is a central but troubling part of this industry. While tourism may provide poorer, minority areas with income, the increase in ethnic tourism is a problematic development for the future of relations between China’s Han majority and its ethnic minorities.

Ethnic tourism may be understood as tourism motivated by the tourist’s desire to experience “authentic” contact with different cultures and ethnicities. This form of tourism is becoming an increasing part of provincial tourism strategies in western China. In Sichuan province, for example, on the road from Chengdu to the traditionally Tibetan Jiuzhaigou Valley, visitors have the opportunity to stop and pose with locals (and yaks) in traditional dress. At the centre of the park itself, visitors are ushered into a large complex where they can purchase “ethnic” goods, such as prayer beads, yak jerky and traditional (albeit plastic) headdresses.  In Yunnan’s Shangri-La county (itself named for the fictional Himalayan paradise to attract more tourists), signs were changed to Tibetan in order to lend the area a more “authentic” feel.

Undoubtedly, ethnic tourism is an important source of income for minorities living in tourist areas. In Tibet, for example, tourism is expected to comprise 20 percent of the regional GDP by 2015 (http://ca.china-embassy.org/eng/kxz/t1022572.htm). Ethnic tourism also carries the potential to ease tensions between minorities such as the Tibetans and the Han majority, as it can provide opportunities for improved inter-ethnic communication and cultural understanding.

At the same time, ethnic tourism encourages tourists to simply “consume” and not actually engage with these cultures.  For instance, in the Jiuzhaigou Valley, while there is the option to stay with Tibetan families, it is large hotels such as the InterContinental Resort that dominate valley accommodation.  Further, instead of having meaningful interactions with minorities, tourists more often just watch them perform, snap their pictures and buy their “ethnic” goods.  As such, ethnic tourism can actually negatively enforce stereotypes of China’s minorities as  “simple-minded” and “exotic.” Indeed, the recent protests against the InterContinental in Lhasa reflect a fear that minorities, such as Tibetans, will continue to be “Disneyfied.”

If relations between the Han majority and ethnic minorities are to improve, these stereotypes must be dismantled and genuine cultural, not commercial, understanding and respect must take its place.

Brianna Botchwey is currently pursuing an MPhil in International Relations and Politics at Cambridge University and is a fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, The University of British Columbia.

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A Tibetan homestay in Jiuzhaigou National Park (Image by Stephanie Zughbi; used with permission).

Links:

Regional Program for Asia and the Pacific, UN World Tourism Organization

Protests against Inter-continental hotel plan for Lhasa, Tibet, The Guardian, May 2013

China’s ethnic song and dance, New York Times (International Edition), May 2013

Lhasa faces ‘disneyfication’ Specter with Hotel Plan, Radio Free Asia, July 2013

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