Ticket controversy cools business in popular tourist town




By Yao Yuan, Yuan Ruting, Liu Liangheng and Ming Xing

For bar owner Zhang Fei, the return of the Chinese tourist town of Fenghuang to its traditional serenity was no good news. Running a Western-style bar named “Flee to Utopia,” Zhang had grown used to the annual May Day holiday sending crowds of tourists into the town in central China’s Hunan Province, and his bar bustled with revelers, beers and live music.

With this year’s holiday about to conclude, however, having seen his customer numbers down 70 percent and much of the bar’s seats unoccupied, Zhang has been in no mood for holiday carnivals.

“The song I’ve played most these days is ‘Empty City.’ Many bars and stores have no customers — it is like in the slack season of December,” Zhang said.

Many inn keepers and store owners like him in the 300-year-old Fenghuang are struggling with a lackluster tourist season after local authorities introduced a policy to levy entrance fees which they said were meant to better protect the town. The new policy, which required tourists to pay 148 yuan (about 24 U.S. dollars) upon entry from April 10, sparked fury among Chinese netizens, and the ensuing decline in the number of visitors upset local business owners.

On Monday, the start of the three-day holiday, only a smattering of tourists roamed the old-style streets of Fenghuang, and some vendors were seen dozing off at their unfrequented stores.

“We used to earn 400 yuan a day in the busy season, but now the income is down to 30 to 40 yuan,” said a woman who rented Miao-styled costumes for tourists to wear while posing for photos.

According to official data, the town received a daily average of 6,000 visitors in the aftermath of the ticket policy’s introduction, down from 20,000 when the site was free to enter.

Facing strong protests from local businessmen, the Fenghuang county government said it would exempt ticket fares for tourists from nearby counties and offer preferential prices for students.

Days prior to the national May Day holiday, however, entry charges didn’t seem to be being enforced at all, and individual tourists were allowed to enter without tickets. While the situation hinted at a quiet climb-down from the admission fee policy, officials said it was mainly because of a lack of ticket-checking staff and machines.



Meaning phoenix in Chinese, Fenghuang is known for its well-preserved architecture and traditional river town scenes. Over the years, it has developed into a popular tourist destination with more than 600 hotels and guest houses, and tourism contributed 67.5 percent of local GDP in 2012.

The exorbitant entry fees have fueled online criticism that the local government is attempting to grasp a share of the tourist revenue from the hands of private businesses. Others accused the government of failing to solicit public opinions before introducing a controversial scheme.

Yet the ticket policy is just part of the local government’s campaign to seek a bigger role in regulating the tourist market. Other plans have also been drafted to relocate businesses out of the overcrowded town and to place privately owned ferries under collective management.

A guest house owner surnamed Li said she feared the interventionist government policies would endanger her business.

“I have invested 400,000 yuan in my inn since 2010. Now the government wants us to leave, but I don’t know how to get my money back,” Li said.

Officials have defended their campaign, saying the collection of entrance fees helped raise more funds for the town’s protection and lighten its burden of having too many visitors.

“Fenghuang often receives more visitors than its maximum capacity. Many tourists enjoyed the free sightseeing but left large amounts of garbage in the town,” said Cai Long, vice head of the county.

By reducing the tourist volume, the government also hopes to curb the unbridled commercialization in the tourist market, which they said had resulted in the rampant price gouging, surging hotel fees and the erosion of the town’s traditional culture.

“The ancient town is losing its charms — its waterway is now filled with kitchen waste and its flagstone streets smack of beer and popcorn; the inflow of investment has also shored up local land prices to an unreasonably high level,” Cai added.

According to a policy draft issued on April 27, the government has proposed offering lower rental fees to businesses that agree to relocate to a government-sponsored commercial zone outside the town and subsidizing houses that were not transformed into commercial outlets.

“Though it may run into a lot of opposition, the de-commercialization course must be pushed; otherwise, it is only a matter of time before the old town will die,” said Zhao Haifeng, acting head of the county.

 (Photos  by Hao Tongqian and Zhao Zhongzhi) 




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