Tourism in Xinjiang reels from unrest

Tourism in Xinjiang reels from unrest
Tourists take in the beauty of Tianchi Lake in the Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang, China.

KANAS LAKE (Xinjiang) - This year, after a stream of news reports of rioting, terrorist attacks and deadly police shootings linked to ethnic conflict in towns across Xinjiang, tourism has plummeted, the first drop in 20 years.

Xinjiang, the size of Western Europe, has long been considered one of China's most exotic destinations. Chinese tourists, usually travelling in tour groups, visit the grasslands and Siberian forests in the area's north and desert oasis towns in the south, along the old Silk Road.

Among the locals, an estimated 1.5 million people have ties to Xinjiang's tourism economy, and many were hoping for a big surge in visitor numbers during the National Day holiday week in China, which began last Wednesday.

But given reports late last month of dozens of people killed in clashes, there is little expectation that the numbers will match those of previous years.

On Sept 21, multiple explosions in Luntai county killed two people and wounded many others. The official Xinjiang news website said 40 rioters died - some were shot by police, others blew themselves up - while six civilians and four police officers and auxiliary employees were killed.

Radio Free Asia, financed by the United States government, said the attackers were furious over land seizures by officials.

It was the deadliest burst of violence in Xinjiang in weeks, but was not atypical.

Many of China's ethnic Han have long held negative stereotypes of Uighurs, as petty thieves, for example, but attitudes hardened after rioting in 2009 in Urumqi resulted in at least 200 deaths, most of them Han.

Uighurs say much of their anger grows from long-running discrimination by the Han. The government blames Uighur separatists for most of the attacks.

Even in northern Xinjiang, far from the Uighur heartland in the south, tourism workers say business is suffering.

"This year has been slow," said Ms Chen Yan, 37, a masseuse from Sichuan province who works every summer at a hotel in the town of Burqin, the gateway to Kanas Lake in northern Xinjiang.

Ms Chen said she made about US$650 (S$830) a month this season, compared with about US$1,000 a month last summer, earnings that help support a 14-year-old son and a husband.

A Kazakh driver in the town, Mr Sailin, said: "Each year, business gets worse."

As Kanas Lake has become more popular with tourists in recent years - in part because of the legend of a Loch Ness-style monster that lurks in the waters - hotel construction has boomed in the park and on its periphery.

But managers say occupancy rates are low this year.

At the lake, dozens of visitors boarded white speedboats one afternoon for a tour.

But in past years, there were many more people, said Mr Sultanate, a Kazakh who worked at the park entrance.

"The captain of one of the boats spends all day wiping the windows," he said.

In the first half of this year, visits from domestic tourists dropped 7 per cent, to 20 million, against the same period last year, according to official statistics.

The revenue from domestic tourists fell nearly 6 per cent, to US$3.5 billion.

Foreign tourism, which is a fraction of the total, also dropped, by nearly 1 per cent, to 619,300, with revenue falling 1 per cent, to US$161 million.

The Xinjiang Regional Tourism Bureau blames "influences from recent terrorist attacks" for the downturn.

So desperate are Xinjiang officials for tourists that they issued US$3.2 million worth of "travel cards" from January to April to tourists visiting with tour groups. The cards, worth US$80 each, can be used to pay for hotels, attractions and local products.

Not everyone in China blames the Uighurs for the violence.

Mr Sun Jingchuan, 60, a Sichuan tourist on a road trip with a friend in the western region of Xinjiang, said some Uighurs were coerced by "a few violent individuals" to commit attacks.

"Next year, we'll go to southern Xinjiang," he said. "I've never been there."


This article was first published on October 6, 2014.
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