Tracing back in history, China's ethnic minorities once maintained their unique styles of architecture, way of living, and local customs. However, as society developed, ethnic minorities encountered a variety of challenges, such as backward economies, limited interactions with the outside world, and a lack of attention given to indigenous cultures.
The heavy fog hindered the ethnic minorities’ ability to thrive and advance, yet the lighting lamp has revealed itself – the tourism industry – by empowering the ethnic minorities through multiple approaches.
Promote economic development and augment minorities’ incomes
First, tourism can stimulate local economic growth and increase the income of ethnic minorities. A successful example is the prospering tourism industry in Tibet.
The mysterious snow-capped mountains, the balmy river valleys, the cleansed spirits... In recent years, the scenery of Tibet has gradually entered the public's field of vision. Many tourists visited Tibet to see the "roof of the world". Tibet's tourism industry is flourishing and rising to become one of the pillar industries in the field.
(Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Source: Xinhua News Agency reporter Jue Guo)
Before 1978, when the “Reform and Opening Up” policy was not yet implemented, very few tourists in China traveled to Tibet. Under the expensive cost of transportation, travel was a luxury for people who were not wealthy at the time.
Since the 1990s, along with the gradual improvement of infrastructure and further opening of the market, the role of Tibet's tourism industry has altered from a foreign affairs reception to a way to boost economic growth. Consequently, Tibet's tourism industry is expanding in its scale and achieving remarkable results. During the "Thirteenth Five-Year Plan" period in China, Tibet's tourism revenue reached 212.596 billion RMB, 2.4 times that of the "Twelfth Five-Year Plan" period, while the tourism economy accounted for 33.3% of the region's total national economic revenue.
Tuden Kezhu, a doctoral supervisor and professor of China's minority economics at Tibet University, led a research team to analyze the statistical data of Tibet for 40 years. Manipulating the other variables as constant, the team calculated that for every 100 million RMB increase in Tibet's total tourism revenue, the GDP and the output value of the tertiary sector of the economy—the service industry—will increase by 357.1 million RMB and 190 million RMB, respectively. This proves that the development of tourism in Tibet promotes the economic growth of Tibet and its tertiary sector.
Amid the tourism boom, many Tibetan families have also gained employment opportunities. Local farmers and herdsmen became guest house owners, restaurant owners, tour guides, etc. According to data from the Tourism Development Department of the Tibet Autonomous Region, in 2020, Tibet's tourism industry had driven 125,000 farmers and 259,000 herdsmen to obtain formal jobs; about 86,000 farmers and herdsmen participated in rural tourism employment, scoring an average income of more than 4,300 RMB.
The "Deji Tibet House" project in Boma Village is a good example of how tourism bolstered employment and income.
In 2016, a total of 100 farmers and herdsmen in poverty were relocated to Boma Village through ex-situ poverty alleviation. Not far from Lhasa, Boma Village is located on the only route from Lhasa to the Namtso Scenic Spot, making it very suitable to develop tourism.
Starting in 2017, the government has taken the lead in introducing a professional operating company to set up cooperatives with villagers. The villagers' residences have been transformed into guest houses and other sites such as cafes and book bars, while villagers held positions like room attendants and waiters. The company responsible for operating the project will take out 40% of its income and distribute dividends every year to the residents.
54-year-old Nima is a villager who moved from Gurong Township to Poma Village. In 2019, she not only received money but her guest house was also rated as the second most beautiful guest house in the village. "In the first half of this year (2019), my family shared 7,100 yuan. We will make persistent efforts in the future to make the homestay service better." Nima expressed joyfully.
In 2020, "Deji Tibet house" relocated 409 people from 100 village families, distributing 337,500 RMB in dividends and increasing the villagers’ average income by over 3,300 RMB per household. Among them, the village households that participated in the guest house operation increased their income by up to nearly 11,600 RMB.
(Scenery of Deji Tibet House. Source: Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the People's Republic of China)
Enrich Cultural Exchanges
Second, tourism can enhance connections between different ethnic groups.
For example, in the past of Xinjiang, ethnic minorities practiced minimal communication with the outside world. While most ethnic minorities in Xinjiang possessed limited knowledge of mainland traditions, many mainlanders also have misunderstandings and stereotypes regarding Xinjiang. A Han tourist in the ancient city of Kashgar revealed, "Kashgar is far from my home in the mainland, so I never learned about the culture here. Many people's impressions of Xinjiang and the ethnic minorities consist of those constructed by others."
(The Ancient City of Kashgar hosting an opening ceremony for tourists to experience the culture of ethnic minorities. Source: PengPai News)
Language barriers and transportation barriers are two reasons for this mutual incomprehension.
First, language barriers between ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and the outside world directly influence the quality of communication. In the past, only very few elderly people and some middle-aged people could speak Mandarin due to Xinjiang's dearth of Mandarin education. This has resulted in difficulties in communication between the older generation of Xinjiang ethnic minorities and mainlanders.
Second, Xinjiang is located by the border of northwestern China, where the unique geographical conditions formed by the terrain of " two basins in between three mountains" greatly restrained the construction and development of Xinjiang's transportation systems. Over a long period of time, Xinjiang's accessibility to the outside world via transportation encountered challenges such as limited roads, poor traffic conditions, difficult residential travel, etc.
As China retains to promote bilingual education since 2000, more and more ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are gaining the ability to communicate in Mandarin. In terms of transportation, various types of infrastructures in Xinjiang also show gradual improvement. It is estimated that by the end of 2022, the total mileage of expressways in the region will reach 10,000 kilometers; furthermore, multiple railways and civil aviation projects will also be open to the public.
At the same time, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has vigorously expanded its tourism industry. In 2015, the National Tourism Administration of China issued the "Guiding Opinions on Further Promoting Tourism in Xinjiang" to further Xinjiang into a tourism center of the Silk Road Economic Belt. In 2022, the Autonomous Region Tourism Development Conference proposed the in-depth implementation of the "Tourism-based Xinjiang" strategy.
Under the guidance of national policies, Xinjiang's tourism industry expanded as tourists worldwide established more in-depth interactions with local ethnic minorities.
The founder of "We Planet" travel agency stated, "As the tourism economy develops, you will discover that the entire Kashgar has become a major tourist city of the autonomous region and a particularly open area in southern Xinjiang. A significant benefit of this is that local people can access ideas and thoughts of people across the country and even around the world.”
Driven by tourism, local ethnic minority populations are willing to actively learn about the mainland's culture and language, especially the Han people who make up the majority of China’s population, to attract more diverse tourists.
In Kashgar, a taxi driver gradually mastered Mandarin through frequent communication with mainland passengers. In the Baishikeranmu village near Kashgar, a farmhouse owner learned how to sing communist songs, such as "Our Xinjiang is a Good Place" and "Why are the Flowers So Red", in Mandarin before a performance so that the Han tourists will be more interested in visiting and leave a better impression of the site. In the ancient city of Kashgar's coppersmith shop, the owner changed the price of a product to 240 yuan or 260 yuan after learning that "250" has a negative connotation in mainland culture.
(Students learning about the development of tourism in rural areas of Kashgar from a farmhouse owner in Baishikeranmu Village. Source: The Explorer)
Meanwhile, tourism has also provided many tourists with a better understanding of Xinjiang's culture. Many mainland tourists in Kashgar revealed that their impression of Xinjiang has changed from an unsafe border area to a hub of amicable and warmhearted people, strong ethnic identity, and distinctive clothing, music, dance, food, etc. A passionate female photographer expressed, “Everyone is first and foremost part of mankind, so we need to be sincere to each other. The earlier prejudice of insecurity in Xinjiang is nothing but superfluous.”
Stimulate the Protection and Inheritance of Minority Cultures
Finally, tourism helps to promote the protection and inheritance of ethnic minority cultures.
Nowadays, the inheritance and protection of ethnic minority cultures also face many challenges. As the culture is constantly flowing and developing, it will inevitably be impacted by mainstream culture. For example, in some Miao areas, many young Miao people have been working outside for a long time and lack enough time and energy on inheriting culture, which leads to difficulties in cultural inheritance in some Miao areas. Some traditional skills even disappear in social development.
Take a look at the Miao settlements in Guangxi and Guizhou. It is estimated that only about one in ten thousand Miao people know how to sing traditional Miao songs, perform the Lusheng dance, and bench dance. Meanwhile, the Miao ethnic arts and crafts are also struggling to survive embroidery, Lusheng, bamboo hat, bird cage, mud whistle, batik, and other folk crafts are gradually dying out.
At present, among the places that produce Lusheng, only Zhouxi Town in Kaili is known to some people. Bamboo hats with Miao characteristics can only be found in Wanshui Town, Kaili, where only dozens of old artists can weave while it has disappeared in other places.
Tourism can be one of the most effective and feasible solutions to the problem of cultural loss. Because culture can enrich the connotation of tourism, tourism also promotes cultural development and dissemination. This win-win situation ultimately brings a vast amount of benefits to ethnic minorities.
A very powerful instance is the tourism development of Rongshui Miao Autonomous County drivingcultural protection and inheritance.
(Miao girls dressed in costumes attend the Zhukou Lusheng Festival in Baiyun Township, Rongshui Miao Autonomous County, Liuzhou City. Source: People's Daily Online)
Rongshui Miao Autonomous County is located in the northern part of Guangxi, which is listed as a key characteristic tourist county by the Party Committee and the people's government of the autonomous region. The local government has given priority to the development of tourism in diversified business forms and invested a lot of funds in the support of the tourism industry and the construction of tourism supporting tourism facilities. From 2013 to 2016, the county's total fixed asset investment in tourism reached 752 million yuan.
The local government has improved the tourism infrastructure of Rongshui, and vigorously carried out cultural heritage protection and promotion projects, such as the establishment of 20 intangible cultural heritage work platforms, such as "Miao Batik Inheritance Base", "Miao Silver Jewelry Production Inheritance Base", and "Miao Bamboo Weaving Production Protection Base".
In addition, Rongshui County has also carried out a series of activities with strong ethnic characteristics, created folk festivals such as "Miao Meeting", "China Lusheng Horse Fight Festival", "Miao Year" and other brands, developed more than 20 kinds of ethnic cultural and creative products, and launched a series of characteristic ethnic cultural experience tourism products.
"Tourists come to our Miao village to see the ethnic culture of the Miao nationality," said Pan Guixian, general manager of a tourism company in Rongshui, Guangxi.
The distinctive local culture of Rongshui County has attracted tourists from all over the country. In 2021, a total of 7.329 million tourists visited this Miao village, a 13.25% increase compared to last year.
(Liang Guiqiu, inheritor of batik art, working on a batik drawing in the Miao Batik Inheritance Center. Source: Guangxi Daily)
The development of tourism has made the local Miao people realize that culture has attracted tourists, so they are more aware of the importance of cultural protection.
In 2018, a drum ceremony, which has been inactive for 23 years, restarted in Yaozhao Village, Gandong Township, Rongshui County." Originally, the Drum Festival was only a vague memory and an abstract description of my grandparents. However, by reorganizing the Drum Festival, I participated and had a deeper understanding of the traditional culture of the Miao people, which made me feel proud of my hometown." Liang Zhi, a Miao villager from Yaogao Village in his 30s, said that the drum festival brings infinite hope to young people. " We need to strengthen the protection of the extant buildings, ethnic costumes, folk culture, and build a drum culture experience area for tourism...”
"Beautiful landscape and rich national culture are the unique resources of our Rongshui Miao Township. We will make efforts to develop the traditional culture, first bringing the ethnic minorities to see the benefits of a protected environment and the inheritance of local cultures in order to further guide the rest of us to consciously protect the environment and inherit the culture," stated Lu Yanyun, deputy head of Rongshui Miao Autonomous County on a discussion about the impacts of tourism on cultural protection and inheritance.
As a form of business, tourism is constantly enriching the cultural connotation and expanding the economic extension with industrial development and the change in market demand. With the remarkable progress in economic employment, ethnic exchanges, and cultural inheritance, the outline of the bright future of ethnic minorities will become clearer.