Shaxi, China: A Study in Navigating Change

Shaxi, China

Shaxi, a restored historic town in Yunnan Province, China, faces key tourism development decisions. Photo by APLP Fellow Taku Jindo.


Asia Pacific Leadership Program Fellows Alisha Bhagat and Gretchen Alther report from the field:

Last autumn, a group of 14 Asia Pacific Leadership Progam fellows from the East-WestCenter  traveled to China for a fall field study program. China provided the perfect environment to engage in dynamic processes of change and apply classroom learning to the real world. The fellows explored the rapid economic development of China, political change, and the prominence of China in the Asia-Pacific.

During the field study, a team of three students travelled to Shaxi, a historic town in rural Yunnan Province that had recently been restored as a tourism site. Shaxi is an ideal place to see the drivers of change in China occurring in a small space.

The town is located in a minority farming community, but the interest and investment in its historic architecture by foreign donors has lifted it to the status of ecotourism destination. Visitors can bike through rice fields and hike to Buddhist temples while still enjoying Western-friendly accommodations.

The APLP team conducted a stakeholder analysis of people and organizations interested in Shaxi’s development. Foreign investors, foreign tourists, and local preservationists desire that Shaxi remain a rustic rural town catering to small groups of high-end eco tourists. Local government, many local business owners, and the local community are eager to open up Shaxi to mass Chinese tourism. This would entail building large hotels and cafeteria-style restaurants to accommodate a large volume of tourists.

“Those of us who support cultural preservation cannot compete with local politicians and their goals for rapid economic development,” said Lu Yuan, an EWC alumna who runs a semester abroad program for US students that stops in Shaxi. “My husband and I first came to Shaxi in 2000 before it became developed.” Yuan went on to say that she is considering other towns for her study program that are less commercial and more traditional.

Based on interviews with local business leaders, the APLP team identified three possible futures for Shaxi. It could remain an exclusive tourist destination and have minimal economic growth. Another possibility is that Shaxi could prioritize ecotourism for slower, more sustainable growth. A third option is Shaxi could open up to mass tourism, which would generate rapid growth but likely crowd out higher end tourism.

By studying a small town, the research team was better able to understand the drivers of change impacting China as a whole. Like much of China, Shaxi is at a crossroads. Its story is not unique. The challenge Shaxi faces is to develop but to do so in a sustainable manner that preserves local culture and the surrounding environment. Many, including government officials, see economic development as the most pressing need. But very few people can afford to consider the long-term effects of this growth.

China is developing rapidly. A highway currently being built will reach Shaxi in 2014 and inevitably bring more tourists. Yin Wu Huang, an architect working on Shaxi’s restoration, stated “the highway is a mixed bag…it might not bring the right kind of tourists. The infrastructure is not in place here for large group tours.” Huang commented, “The thought process behind the [Shaxi restoration] project was to demonstrate that tourism could be a driver for social and economic development and that cultural and natural heritage of an area doesn’t need to be lost when it becomes developed.”