Last updated: 10:30 PM ET, Sun March 22 2015

The Last Shangri-La

Yunnan and Sichuan offer your clients "China Like Never Before"

Agent@Home | Destination & Tourism | James Ruggia

The Last Shangri-La

PHOTO: Yunnan’s Lijiang City includes the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to astrologers the Chinese Year of the Goat requires creative approaches to doing business, and the marketing mavens at PhoCusWright heartily agree. Instead of reading tea leaves, they surveyed the attitudes of 17,126 U.S. adults who traveled to China in the past three year and that input led the China National Tourist Office (CNTO) to launch a brand imaging campaign last fall designed to revitalize the destination.

The campaign, with the tagline “China Like Never Before,” aims to get travelers off the beaten path.

Even when you go off the beaten path in China, you’re likely to find the path has been pretty well blazed by business travelers. More than 2.09 million Americans visited China last year, 801,500 of them tourists. For business travelers, the fastest-growing region is Western China, where destinations such as Lijiang, Xishuangbanna and Chengdu are now developing major hotel inventories.

Hotel companies continue to expand in these parts of China to capitalize on growth in both business and leisure travel. In March, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts opened the Fairmont Chengdu Residences as part of a mixed-use development that will also include the 347-room Fairmont Chengdu, scheduled to open this year.

Also, United Airlines began direct flights to Chengdu from San Francisco last year, making the region much easier to access.

Western China can be divided into two distinct travel regions: the Northwest, with its ancient connections to the Silk Road, and the Southwest, with its own connections to Southeast Asia and Tibet. For now we’ll focus on the Southwestern provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, both of which are heavily influenced by Tibet.

Yunnan for Soft Adventure

Yunnan has been a popular soft adventure destination since the 1990s, when it was often combined with culturally connected hill tribe tourism in other Mekong countries such as Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The hill tribes in this region originated in the Tibetan headwaters of the Mekong. Last year, the New York Times made Xishuangbanna, China, one of its 52 Places to Visit in 2014. Xishuangbanna is on the Lancang River not far from Laos and Myanmar, in an area so pristine that China’s last wild elephants continue to live there.

The year 2013 was an important year for Xishuangbanna. That’s when the 520-room Crowne Plaza Resort Xishuangbanna opened as the first Crowne Plaza Resort in China. Wyndham will soon add a Ramada in Xishuangbanna.

PHOTO: The Anantara Xishuangbanna Resort & Spa has 80 rooms, as well as 23 one-, two- and three-bedroom Pool Villas.

In 2013, the Anantara Xishuangbanna Resort & Spa opened with 80 rooms, as well as 23 one-, two- and three-bedroom Pool Villas. Dillip Rajakarier, CEO of Minor Hotel Group, Anantara’s owning company, said, “Xishuangbanna is a key new destination on the tourism trail for both local and international travelers, giving guests the opportunity to experience a unique blend of spectacular scenery, history and culture.”

Banyan Tree tapped Yunnan’s cultural and historic connections to Tibet with its two hotels on the opposite ends of the legendary Tea Horse Trail. Until the 1949 Revolution, Tibet traded horses with Yunnan for a black fermented tea that is unique to the area. The Banyan Tree Lijiang and Banyan Tree Ringha sit at opposite ends of this trail, giving guests a chance to experience the route with a luxury caravansary at each end. The Banyan Tree Lijiang’s spa incorporates tea into many of its treatments such as the Barley & Green Tea scrub and the Green Tea Tonic mist. The Banyan Tree Ringha is located in the valley of Shangri-La by snowy peaks.

Last November, Angsana Hotels & Resorts opened its first hot spring resort in a secluded volcanic region in western Yunnan. Located in Tengchong, the property offers 28 hot spring retreats and nine villas, each with a private hot spring tub. A vast spa has been built around 43 outdoor and indoor hot spring pools themed according to the various minerals that offer therapeutic benefits.

Both Shangri-La and Indigo opened hotels in Yunnan in 2013. Lijiang’s Old Town dates back 800 years and has been named as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The 70-room Hotel Indigo Ancient Town hopes to suggest a sort of traders inn on the Tea Horse Trail between Yunnan and Tibet. The 230-room Shangri-La Hotel, Diqing is scheduled to open this year in Yunnan’s Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, on the southward expansion of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the Hengduan Mountains near Padacuo National Park and the Tiger-leaping Gorge and Meili Snow Mountains.

Blue Moon Valley and the Thousand Lake Mountain scenic area are within 60 miles of Shangri-La town center and are part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the “Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas.”

Sichuan’s Cuisines and Pandas

PHOTO: Like the koala is for Australia, the Giant Panda is an icon of China’s Sichuan Province.

For many Americans, Sichuan conjures up images of a very spicy brand of Chinese food, but it’s more than that. Chengdu, the official capital of Sichuan, has become the de facto capital of Southwestern China, due to enormous growth in manufacturing and business. In 2010, Chengdu was named the next decade’s Fastest-Growing City by Forbes magazine. Some 243 Fortune 500 companies have settled there. All of this activity is attracting the interest of hoteliers.

Sichuan Province responds well to the call by the China National Tourist Office (CNTO) for more soft adventure thanks to its vast forests and its distinction as the home of the Giant Panda. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda has become a popular destination for visitors. The Research Base has been releasing Giant Pandas into the wilds of the Chengdu Panda Valley, 2,000 acres of controlled wilderness in Dujiangyan, Chengdu.

This year, Chengdu, like Xishuangbanna last year, made the New York Times’ 52 Places to Visit list. The Times cites Chengdu’s “exciting new chefs and boutique hotels.” It singles out the Yu Zhi Lan Restaurant and Temple House, a Swire Hotels property that recently opened. The hotel is located within the Chengdu Daci Temple Cultural and Commercial Complex. The 100-room property evokes the homes of the scholars who came from different parts of the world to study at the Temple. The 113-suite Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain will open near Panda Valley and Mount Emei in May.

Chengdu also appeared on another prominent list when UNESCO recently cited it as one of its Cities of Gastronomy. Sichuan has 56 separate cooking styles each using plenty of chilies and peppercorns.

Sichuan cuisine was the first to emerge with its own profile among American diners in the 1980s. Before that, all food from China fell under the rubric, “Chinese food,” which back then was mostly Cantonese.

UNESCO also cited Chengdu’s Dujiangyan Irrigation System for its World Heritage List. In 256 BCE, Sichuan governor Li Beng constructed the system, which after 2,200 years still serves the twin purposes of flood control and irrigation.

The Minjiang River falls from about 13,000 feet to 1,300 feet within the city limits of Dujiang. Li corralled the river with a brilliant system that transformed what had been a hazardous series of floods into the life force of the province as it filled the otherwise dry plains of Chengdu.

The recent opening of Daocheng Yading Airport, the world’s highest-elevation civilian airport, at 14,472 feet, has made Yading and its Nature Reserve in the eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau easily accessible by a 65-minute flight from Chengdu. Yading is known as “the last Shangri-La” for the unspoiled quality and beauty of its natural resources.

Four Pillars of Growth

The CNTO hopes to broaden and deepen American travel awareness of China by pursuing four pillars: luxury, soft adventure and educational and senior travel. All four pillars are represented in these two Southwestern Provinces and they are well off the path that Americans have been beating all these years in the cities of Eastern China.

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Agent@Home Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the March 2015 issue of Agent@Home Magazine.