Tourism boom threatening heritage sites in China

The booming tourism growth in China is threatening the country’s heritage sites.

With China’s economy currently firing on all cylinders, domestic tourism has increased dramatically. In addition, globalisation has brought more foreign visitors to experience a country that was once behind the Bamboo Curtain. However, the increase in tourism has affected the upkeep of heritage sites in the country with many now believed to be under threat from irresponsible tourism. Some sites are thought to be under greater threat than others.

One example is the tiny village of Zili in southern China, famous for its Kaiping watchtowers, which make it a UNESCO world heritage site. The site houses hundreds of abandoned watchtowers in the Pearl River Delta. Surrounding the watchtowers are rice fields and lush bamboo groves. Families and villagers supposedly built the ornate towers during the early 19th and 20th centuries when it was common for hoards of bandits to attack. The turrets in the watchtowers helped villagers to look out for such attacks.

However the Kaiping watchtowers, also known as diaolou, are finding it more difficult to defend themselves against the ever-increasing number of tourists and the destruction they leave behind. Hoards of tourists are visiting these sites to take photos and to taste what is known locally as ‘peasant family foods’. The rustic charm of the village is an attractive selling point for tourists, who see a visit simply as a means of amusement. The state is also using other UNESCO sites to help develop backward rural areas.

China now has 43 world heritage sites, and the nation is trying to include more sites on the list, as listings attract tourists with money to spend. The downside is that at many heritage sites, conservationists are losing a battle against commercialisation.

Authorities are now trying to limit the number of customers by using various means, such as increasing costs or restricting visitor numbers.