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China’s Tourists Are ‘Going Country,’ But Is Sustainability a Priority?

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In late August, the fascinating and heartening story of seven Chinese girlfriends who bought and renovated a massive house in a suburban neighborhood resurfaced in Western media two years after it first appeared on Chinese social media. 

What, you might ask, was so special about this story? Well, the friends have made a pact that they will retire together in the rural edifice.

Netizens are enchanted by this tale of priceless friendship, as well as the delightfully designed residence. On Twitter alone, a relevant tweet about the story has been retweeted more than 275,000 times. On Instagram, a repost by NextShark has garnered more than 163,000 likes.

Encircled by paddy field-covered hills and beside a strikingly picturesque village that is also home to a banana forest, the communal house has rooms with glass walls and floors covered with tatami. It also has a living room with exceptional views of the surrounding countryside.

This easy-to-envy story captivated many in the West and is well-known in China, where it stirred a social media storm when it was initially published in 2019.

The plan began as a joke between the friends, but the rural lifestyle that this story represents is part of a bigger ‘go rural’ trend that has increasingly gained traction in China in recent years.

According to a report from China’s leading travel services provider Trip.com Group, which was seen by RADII, rural destinations have grown in popularity. However, the overall booking rates for urban destinations still outweigh rural ones.

During the first half of 2021, the destinations with the most significant increase in bookings compared to the same period in 2019 were primarily suburban areas or remote rural areas.

Similarly, about 30 destinations on the Chinese mainland, most of which are in undeveloped or remote destinations in western China, have seen a fivefold increase in travel bookings compared to the same period in 2019.

In March of this year alone, rural tourism-related orders on Trip.com Group’s Ctrip platform increased by 349% compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

For years, China’s national rural revitalization strategy has prioritized rural tourism as one of its essential aims to strengthen the countryside economy.

The resultant boom in rural travel has thus sparked ongoing conversations around sustainable rural tourism in the country, speaking to the need to ensure that local cultures survive and thrive while maintaining the environment and providing economic opportunities for these rural areas.

What are the core elements of rural tourism in China, and is sustainability a priority? Also, who are the folks behind the rise of the industry?

Three-Body Problem: Culture, Economy, and Environment

For people who are not very familiar with the term ‘sustainable tourism,’ it comes not only with an emphasis on an eco-friendly approach but also on respecting, appreciating, and preserving cultural heritage and creating economic opportunities within the local community. In this way, sustainable tourism considers the environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts of visitors, providing for the revitalization of rural areas while speaking to the needs of tourists and local communities.

Zelin Ma is a tourism management graduate who previously ran a boutique homestay deep in the mountains near Hangzhou in coastal Zhejiang province. She told us that a variety of perspectives on sustainable tourism were taken into account in the daily operations of her work with the homestay.

With a total of 24 guest rooms, Ma’s homestay hired more than 25 local employees from nearby villages, providing job opportunities for villagers who otherwise would not have been able to find work in the local area.

The homestay also made conscious efforts to protect the local environment by organizing frequent mountain clean-up trips and setting up their sewage pipelines to bring zero negative impact to the local ecosystem.

Shengtian Elite, a co-living and homestay facility in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. Image courtesy of Shengtian Elite

Located in a bamboo forest, close to where the Chinese encyclopedia of tea culture The Classic of Tea was written over 1,000 years ago, the homestay connects guests with the magnificent power of nature while honoring local culture. Remains of old walls and furniture from old buildings are part of the design, while elements of bamboo are everywhere, according to Ma.

At its core, a long-term commitment is the most crucial aspect of the idyllic rural lifestyle. Many who move to the countryside to set up businesses lack an accurate understanding of what it means to be dedicated to rural living, instead viewing the experience as a simple escape from their hectic city lives.

American transplant Brian Linden is the founding partner and president of the Linden Centre. This cultural retreat center is dedicated to providing authentic and profound immersion in China’s rural areas. The Linden Centre does this by offering visitors direct access to local communities via their nationally protected cultural heritage sites. 

Speaking to RADII, he says he believes that to make rural development more sustainable, it “requires a long-term commitment to each of your destinations.”

Linden Centre Yunnan

The Linden Centre in Xizhou, Yunnan province. Image by Thanakrit Gu

Employing more than 70 local staff at its Xizhou location, which is 20 kilometers from Dali Old Town in Yunnan province, Linden says giving back to locals long-term is essential to rural development. 

“​For a lot of projects in China, money is not an issue. It seems to be more about working with the local communities and committing to being there not just for a six-month project or an 18-month project, but being there for 20, 30 or 40 years, then you become part of the community,” says Linden. 

Speaking to the new waves of young people who have moved from big cities to small towns such as Dali to pursue a more relaxing lifestyle by opening up cafes, homestays and bars, Linden says that we should all be thinking about how to share experiences with local communities while being there for the long haul. 

“Gain the trust and love of the local community by giving that back to them first and demonstrating that we’re not just here to give you a design and see you later,” Linden notes. 

Young and Open-Minded 

One major part of sustainable tourism in China lies in its booming homestay market, or minsu (民宿) in Chinese, which is being powered by the younger population.

The meaning of homestay in China has extended beyond guest rooms at locals’ residential apartments or houses and can also refer to boutique hotels, villas, B&Bs, and sometimes even farmstays.

According to statistics provided by Trip.com, among those who have booked homestays on the Ctrip platform this year, the vast majority — 80% — are below the age of 40. Of these, 12% are post-’00 (a term referring to the generation born after the year 2000), 38% are post-’90, and 30% are post-’80. These ratios are very similar to what Trip.com found in its 2020 and 2019 studies.

Meanwhile, a majority of homestay getaways in China are in the countryside. According to a joint report published by the Chinese homestay booking website Susunet.cn and Social Sciences Academic Press of China, 76.91% of all homestays in China are in rural areas.

Interior of Linden Centre

The stunning interior of the Linden Centre in Xizhou, located 20 kilometers from Dali in Yunnan province. Image by Thanakrit Gu

Many homestays in China are much more than simply accommodation. They provide experiential aspects with local characteristics such as fruit picking, sketching in nature, handcrafting, and participating in local cultural activities and events.

“I believe the reason that young people nowadays increasingly prefer homestays over hotels is that they are more open-minded and they want to immerse themselves more in the local culture,” says Ellie Zhao, a 28-year-old who works in the e-commerce industry in Hangzhou.

She recalls how she initially heard the term homestay and AirBnB when studying and traveling overseas seven years ago. 

“At that time, we would mostly book homestays to experience local culture. This kind of travel wasn’t very well-known in China at the time because staying in a hotel was still considered a status symbol somehow,” says Zhao.

She goes on to tell us, “Even nowadays, the older generation still might not be entirely open to the idea of staying in someone else’s home or investing time to research the most attractive homestays in a certain destination.”

sustainable tourism

A woman relaxing at Shengtian Elite. Image courtesy of Shengtian Elite

However, Zhao admits that the price, location and design might be the most important factors for her when choosing a homestay. Sustainability, however, is less of a priority.

“While it could be a plus if the homestay is eco-conscious or making a contribution to the local community, on the customer side, it’s not really the most important thing, unfortunately,” she says. “It would be great if society at large and the homestay industry educated people more on this issue.”

Besides her local staff, who were mostly older, Zelin Ma had a team of more than 10 young people in their 20s — some of whom had just graduated and had a genuine enthusiasm for the rural living lifestyle.

“Young people are the backbone of the homestay industry in China,” Ma opines, speaking on the importance and vitality that this young generation has brought to the industry. “With their previous experience, they also made it possible to host events such as tea tastings, bonfires and trash collecting deep in the mountains.”

A Middle-Class Game 

The Shengtian Elite, or 生田社 in Chinese, is a co-living homestay community located in a mountainous village in Shaoxing in Zhejiang province. The gorgeous site went viral earlier this summer on Chinese social media after being featured by popular media outlet Yitiao.

Co-founded by Xiao Lei and his friend Laocao after they quit their jobs in the city a few years ago, Shengtian Elite now has six independent houses with gardens and nine rooms. Open for business since November of last year, the homestay has welcomed numerous visitors from across the country.

Speaking to us about the rural living trend, Xiao believes China’s rising middle class has played a crucial role in leading and expediting rural lifestyles.

“For people with middle-class backgrounds, their need for an occasional rural living experience has dramatically increased for three reasons: the overwhelming, busy and stressful city life makes them crave life in the countryside, with clean air and open spaces; their high salary and life experience make them believe that a slow life is more sophisticated than a fast-travel style; they increasingly realize the importance of making connections with nature,” Xiao tells us.

According to Ctrip.com, where the site is listed, one standard room costs around 1,200RMB (around 185USD) per night. However, the site is almost fully booked for weekend trips. The room price listed online for the Linden Centre is within the same ballpark, showing the relatively exclusive nature of these boutique homestays.

Besides accommodation, Shengtian Elite offers a catered events service, a farmstay experience, and customized rural tours for guests who usually drive from cities that are hours away.

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“Sustainable tourism is a trend driven by exclusive urban middle-class groups and propelled by the country’s young people,” says Xiao. “While rural tourism is in a pretty early stage of development in China, and sustainable tourism will not hit all the criteria perfectly in one day, creating more genuine human ties and facilitating more interactions between the city and rural areas through homestays will lay the foundation for future work.”

Cover image courtesy of Shengtian Elite 

Siyuan Meng
Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. She likes going outdoors.