UPPER JIDAO, China (Reuters) - A crystal river, lush fields, forest views and gentle village life should be all the ingredients Upper Jidao needs to attract tourists to this little piece of paradise in the world’s most populous nation.
But hopes that tourism would boost this picturesque village in China’s poor southwestern province of Guizhou have yet to come to fruition as the expected flood of rich Chinese tourists and foreign visitors has turned out to be little more than a trickle.
“We lack the infrastructure, the basic facilities. We need to build toilets, places for people to stay,” said Pan Shengfu, the recently elected village head, standing in one of the narrow alleys that criss-cross the village.
“Visitors have high standards,” he explained.
The village is at the heart of government efforts to raise rural incomes — a third of the urban average — by encouraging tourism in the vast countryside.
Rural issues, especially how to boost farmers’ livelihoods, are likely once again to be in focus at this year’s annual meeting of parliament, which opens in early March.
Places like Upper Jidao are at the heart of a government bid to revitalize rural China, left behind by an economic boom that has brought great wealth to many cities in China.
In recent years the rural tourism concept of “nong jia le” — meaning “peasant family happiness” — has taken off in more developed tourist areas like Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
Last year, Guizhou earned some 38 billion yuan ($4.9 billion) from tourism and played host to around 47 million tourists, up by more than 50 percent from 2005, according to government figures. An estimated 10 percent of that came from “village tourism”.
At Upper Jidao, a village populated by ethnic Miao people, children play as their parents tend fields of lush, organically grown vegetables surrounded by towering pine forests.
Elderly women stoke fires in traditional wooden houses, some hundreds of years old. In the distance, a cow grazes.
The idyllic village and the Bala River region in which it sits was chosen for official tourist development in 2002.
Partly funded by the World Bank, foreign consultants were brought in to train villagers, English language signs were hung up and money was doled out.
Residents had high hopes that villagers, forced by poverty to leave for jobs in richer parts of China would return to Upper Jidao to work as tour guides, or run guest houses.
“We hoped everyone would be able to come home to help out,” said village elder Pan Nianwu. “It hasn’t developed as quickly as we had hoped,” he added sadly.
Villagers welcome tourists to stay the night, in sparse but clean guest rooms, for just 10 yuan ($1.30) a person.
Yet the lack of bathrooms and extremely basic toilets have put many off, they say.
Still, the village looks tidy, and pigs are generally hidden away in sties under houses.
“I ask them what’s changed in the village since opening up to tourism, and the usual response is ‘things are much cleaner here’,” said Jenny Chio, a University of California doctoral student researching tourism and development in southwest China.
“I think that’s been a really positive benefit. What remains is that they need tourists now,” she added.
Villagers estimate they received no more than a few thousand yuan from tourism last year, and much of that concentrated during the “golden week” holidays — Lunar New Year, Labour Day in May and National Day in October — started by the government to spur consumer spending.
“There’s no regularity to the tourism income. It’s more like a tip than a direct income. This is a big problem,” said Chio.
The rural tourism project has attracted support from the top echelons of power in Beijing.
The magazine Seeking Truth, the Communist Party’s ideological journal, last month carried a long piece by National Tourism Administration head Shao Qiwei praising the idea, and recognizing its potential importance for boosting the incomes of hundreds of millions of farmers.
“We must vigorously develop village tourism, putting into force the guiding principle of ‘using tourism to help the farmers’, to push the development of the new socialist countryside,” Shao wrote.
Few places need the help more than Guizhou. It is so poor, mountainous and remote that there is a saying in China that the three things you’ll never come across there are three days of sun, three acres of flat land and three grams of silver.
Chen Qin, 27, a member of Upper Jidao’s tourism committee, is optimistic about the village’s chances.
“Look at other villages. There has been a large improvement in their lives because of tourism,” she said, dressed in a traditional, colourful Miao embroidered jacket.
Upper Jidao is getting 500,000 yuan in aid over the next three years from Ningbo, a city in the affluent eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, to improve its infrastructure.
“We can drink the water here, but if people come we’re going to need flushing toilets,” Chen added. “We are preparing.”
Additional reporting by Kitty Bu