Rapid dynamics: rural tourism and urbanization
Rural development in China is having an important impact on the entire country. Economic growth in rural areas has come mainly from non-farm industries, especially rural enterprises. But in recent years, as the growth of rural enterprises has declined, many rural areas have begun to suffer from economic stagnation, and rural development is facing many challenges. Rural tourism has the potential to counterbalance agriculture and increase farmers' incomes.
Modern rural tourism in China began quite late, at the end of the 1980s, but developed very quickly with the growth of urban incomes and the demand for tourism. The city of Chengdu, with its surroundings, is an example of this growth and demand from an increasingly urbanized society.
A hilly cultural landscape for recreation
Chengdu has an area of 12,300 km2 and is located in the transition belt of the eastern extension of Qinghai–Tibet Plateau and Sichuan Basin, so its landforms vary. Mountains and hills cover 63.6% of its total area. Chengdu has a history of over 2300 years of settlement. The famous ancient Dujiangyan irrigation works have played an important role in making Chengdu “the land of abundance.” Chengdu is now a political, economic and cultural center in Sichuan Province. With its tradition of leisure and rich agro-tourist resources, the conditions for development of rural tourism in Chengdu are good. Rural tourism has spread to the suburbs of Chengdu and become a model of rural tourism in China (Figure 1).
Nongjiale: a new trend
Typical rural tourism is called nongjiale (ie places where you can “enjoy yourself in farmers' families”) by local residents. Facilities usually include houses, a courtyard, an orchard, transplant nursery, bamboo grove, or perhaps an additional fishpond and children's playground. Since nongjiale are close to the city and transportation is convenient, most tourists do not need to stay overnight (some nongjiale do not provide accommodation). Furthermore, the nongjiale vary in scale. Some occupy several thousand square meters, enough to accommodate several hundred visitors at the same time, while some are only about 100 m2 and can receive only few visitors at a time.
All nongjiale provide almost the same type of recreation: playing mahjong (a popular strategy game in China) and cards, drinking tea, enjoying flowers, and picking fruit. Others offer fishing, Karaoke, table tennis, billiards, children's slides and seesaws, etc. The cost is generally 15–25 yuan RMB (about US$ 2–3) per person per day, including lunch, dinner and tea. But prices are 25–35 yuan RMB (about US$ 3–4) when the fruit is ripe and guests can pick and eat fruit freely at the nongjiale. These low prices attract tourists for repeated visits.
Rural tourism began as family businesses run by local farmers. Most employees are relatives. Local farmers usually manage several businesses concurrently. For example, besides tourism, they may also grow plants in nurseries, fruit trees in orchards, and run other agricultural operations. With the development of rural tourism, some local urban residents began to operate businesses by renting land from local farmers. It is estimated that about 20% of the operators are not local farmers in Chengdu. Generally their operations are larger and their facilities better than those of the local farmers.
Boosting the rural economy
For most operators, nongjiale is a main source of income. This study found that tourism accounts for 50%–90% of the total income for enterprises that have tourist operations year round, and 20%–40% for households that have operations in busy months only.
Rural tourism in Chengdu thus obviously contributes to rural development. It has created new models for traditional agriculture and land use. It is a practical way of integrating the primary sector with the tertiary sector and increase rural household income. Longquanyi County is a good example: about one-third of the income growth in rural house-holds each year comes from tourism during the period when peaches are in bloom. Fruit sales to tourists account for about one-third of total sales. If their own fruit cannot meet tourist demand, households buy from others in the village. As a result, rural tourism benefits not only tourism operators, but also others in the county since sales and fruit prices increase.
The problem of rural surplus labor in China is acute (see also the paper by Liu et al in this issue of MRD). According to the WTO, every job in the tourism sector can generate another 3–5 jobs in the economy. In Longquanyi County, over 5000 people were engaged in tourism in 2002, and at least 15,000 jobs were linked to tourism. Hence the tourism sector can obviously digest part of the surplus labor force.
Changing mentalities and behavior
It is important that rural tourism accelerate the acceptance of ideas linked with urbanization and boost the quality of rural human resources. To meet visitors' needs, nongjiale need to subscribe to news-papers and periodicals, and they must gradually also develop their own interest in reading. Visitors also bring recreational and sports activities to the countryside. The development of tourism and increased income for farmers provide an opportunity to change hygienic habits and improve the rural environment. The village of Nongke illustrates such dynamics. The entire village is beautiful—known as “the peasants' park without walls.” The practice of dumping garbage everywhere has almost disappeared, and water closets are now widely used. The roads in the village have been greatly improved. Communication has also improved; every family owns a telephone, including cell phones.
Thus, as local peasants have more opportunities for contact with tourists from cities, their views become broader and some of their traditional ideas change. Tourism puts even greater demands on management. Some operators have taken the initiative to undergo training, and are interested in improving their abilities. This gradually breeds a new class of high-quality entrepreneurs.
The development of rural tourism faces some challenges. At present, all nongjiale have a similar approach to recreation. But stereotyped recreation becomes uninteresting and causes sharper competition, resulting in the decline of economic benefits. Moreover, due to the seasonality of agriculture, rural tourism based on agricultural resources is also highly seasonal. For instance, in Longquanyi County, the peak period is in March, when peach trees blossom. Over 50% of all tourists arrive during this peak month (Figure 2), so the facilities cannot meet demand; moreover, environmental degradation takes place at the same time. By contrast, there are few visitors (only 20% of the annual total) in the off-season. Much tourism infrastructure is unused and many nongjiale have to suspend operations.
The following suggestions address these conditions:
First, lack of planning is one of the causes of similarity in patterns of rural tourism. Hence it is necessary to plan tourism in accordance with the potential of each county.
Second, there is a need to enrich the cultural aspects of rural tourism; ignoring them is one of the main problems of nongjiale. Cultural enrichment and embeddedness is urgently needed. For instance, rural tourism could include gardening education and integrate local folk culture.
Third, the tourism sector should be further developed in the off-season. Special offers could be provided, such as “being a farmer for a day,” or instruction in weaving and use of farm tools, etc. These activities could be developed in all seasons, independent of sunlight and agricultural resources.
Finally, training and government support is important. Farmers who have turned away from traditional agriculture to the tourism industry should receive the necessary training.
This study demonstrates that among nongjiale operators, urban residents have better management skills than farmers. And among farmers, those who have had the experience of training or of work outside the area have better skills than those who have no such experience. In developing rural tourism, villages and counties will have to unite to promote enterprises in order to avoid damaging competition and improve sustainable development. Local governments should exert their functions in terms of macro-coordination and administration.