China's Travelers Discover Rural Retreats at Home

Like many of China's newly wealthy middle class, Dai Xiaolang, a Shanghai housewife in her early 50s, has traveled abroad in recent years. She has joined tours to Russia and Thailand, and even gone with her family on a cruise to Vietnam and Singapore. But this year she's thinking of something a little closer to home: a trip to China's northwestern region of Xinjiang. "People say it's lovely in the summer," she says. "There's a lot to see. And if I go somewhere in China, it will cost me a lot less than if I go to America."

The Chinese tourist has become a ubiquitous sight from the Grand Canyon to the Grand Palais. Last year some 40 million Chinese travelers spent around $30 billion overseas, up 20 percent from the year before. And in the current downturn, many countries are still pinning their tourism hopes on China. The U.S. recently made it easier for Chinese travel groups to get visas, and representatives of various U.S. destinations have flocked to recent travel-industry fairs in Shanghai and Guangzhou. Mexico City is mulling visa-free access for Chinese visitors. Even war-ravaged Sri Lanka recently named China as the key to reviving its beleaguered travel industry. The fact that China's currency has strengthened against most others in recent months has only raised expectations for increased outbound travel.

But China has its own economic woes. Worried about slowing growth and falling exports, many Chinese are scaling back plans. Young Chinese, in particular, are delaying their overseas adventures. "In the past, a lot of students would go to Europe for a holiday after they graduated from university," says Hu Yang, an architect who helped set up a chain of youth hostels and budget hotels. "But this year it's not so easy to find a job. So now more young people want to wait until their life is more stable before going abroad."

As a result, Hu has seen business pick up at the properties she runs with some friends. Bookings at Shanghai's Naza Hostel and another on the popular Gulangyu Island in Xiamen are up 50 percent, thanks in part to Chinese business travelers who've downsized from mainstream hotel chains. But Hu says the tastes of young Chinese travelers are also changing, and they are seeking more relaxed and unique accommodations like Naza, which was converted from an old paint factory.

Rural retreats have become particularly popular. More and more young Chinese are now not only interested in outdoor pursuits such as trekking and climbing, but are also eager to stay in villages, living in farmers' homes and eating fresh, simple local food. "We have more than a hundred families who now take people to stay in their homes," says Li Jianlin, the village chief of Xijiang, a rural township situated in Guizhou province. "It helps the farmers supplement their income a lot, and we're hoping it will become a mainstay of our economy," he says. Many such villages offer city people the chance to pick their own fruit and vegetables. It may seem ironic, in a nation where only a few decades ago Chairman Mao forced young urbanites to go "down to the countryside" to work the land. But young city dwellers are becoming better educated about the natural environment, says Gabriela Lo, who works for Naked Retreats, a new ecoresort west of Shanghai. "People in China moved so far away from the rural way of life over the past decades that they went to the opposite extreme," she says. "But now they've become interested in looking back into nature."

Similarly, Lo says, some Chinese who have traveled widely have also begun to realize their own country's vast potential for tourism. "They see that there are great places to visit in China, and they start to become proud of what they have at home," she says. Some are even taking greater ownership of their country; thousands have joined a scheme launched by a Beijing NGO called "One Kilogram More," in which travelers carry a kilogram of books in their luggage to distribute to children in the impoverished rural areas they visit.

China's tourist hotspots are hoping to capitalize on this homebody spirit. With hotel occupancy in many cities down 30 percent thanks to decreased foreign visitors, local governments have begun issuing discount vouchers for domestic tourists. The city of Nanjing is offering coupons worth some $3 million for package tours or discounted admission to scenic spots. Chengdu, the capital of earthquake-ravaged Sichuan province, is issuing 20 million tourist-discount cards, which can be used at 11 tourist attractions. And when the town of Hangzhou began to distribute tourism vouchers at banks in nearby Shanghai, so many people clamored for them that it nearly sparked a riot. Overseas travel is nice, but nothing beats a bargain.