Desperate for tourism, Chinese cities fight for hometown bragging rights

With revenue from local tourism estimated to reach $172 billion this year, Chinese towns are scrambling to lay claim to historical and even fictional characters to attract visitors.
Map of Jiangyou and Anlu, China
By William Wan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 12:00 AM

JIANGYOU, CHINA - For centuries, folks in Jiangyou City had only one claim to fame. They lived in the home town of one of China's most famous poets, an 8th-century genius and drunkard called Li Bai, who is regarded with the same reverence in the East as Shakespeare is in the West.

So the people of Jiangyou were shocked last year when they turned on their televisions to see this cheery promotional ad: "As the home town of Li Bai. . . Anlu City welcomes you."

Jiangyou's leaders were livid. Lawsuits were filed, cease-and-desist letters sent and ugly threats made.

But a strange thing started to happen. Other towns began getting into similarly vicious fights - and not just over major historical figures like Li Bai, but minor ones and fictional characters, too. Several towns fought to claim an adulterous murderer from a famous romance novel.

It got so bad that China's central government stepped in this summer and ordered a stop to all town-on-town smear campaigns.

The disputes, economists say, grow out of the increasing number of domestic tourists in China and the way the country's booming middle class is reshaping its economy. For decades, China's tourism market was dominated by foreign dollars. But in recent years that has changed, with revenue from local tourism estimated to reach $172 billion this year, compared with $43 billion from foreign tourism. Fueling the boom are new vacation days mandated by Beijing.

As a result, towns are scrambling to give vacationers every possible excuse to visit. And as the recent squabbles show, some are willing to stretch the truth to seal the deal.

Many have cast Anlu as the villain in the fight over poet Li Bai, also known in the West as Li Po. But even the briefest visit to this remote, middling-size city reveals an economic desperation that's almost palpable.

For decades, the main industry in Anlu was agriculture. As that sector declined, city leaders tried state-owned industrial plants in the 1980s and '90s, until those collapsed, as well.

With the economy in freefall, officials scrambled for anything that could provide a jump-start. Then, a few years ago, they recalled that Li Bai had lived in Anlu for about 10 years. They developed a simple strategy: Go big.

Now an entire Li Bai-themed resort is being built in Anlu. During a recent visit, Anlu officials showed off what they claimed will be the tallest statue of Li Bai in the world, a 125-foot-high figure visible from the nearby highway. A Li Bai memorial hall is nearing completion, as are a man-made lake and luxury hotel. There are also plans for a Disneyesque street with vendors in Tang Dynasty garb selling period food and trinkets.

Anlu's leaders, like all local officials in China, are obsessed with increasing GDP - shorthand for a region's economic output. Across the country, small-town leaders who don't know any other words in English invoke those three letters dozens of times a day in conversation. In many cases, GDP is the sole criterion for promotion or dismissal.

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