Last updated: 01:23 PM ET, Mon June 09 2014

China Embraces The New Silk Road

Destination & Tourism James Ruggia June 09, 2014

China Embraces The New Silk Road

PHOTO: Business travel on the Silk Road circa 114 BCE. (Courtesy of China National Tourism Administration)

Early this spring, China's National People's Congress held two sessions in Beijing in which Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the "One Belt One Zone Policy,” based on the New Silk Road Economic Zone. Even as Chinese tourism is embracing the Silk Road with a new promotional zeal, Chinese trade officials are embracing the historic metaphor of the Silk Road as the face of its branding of its foreign economic and political policies.

In Kenya, for instance, Chinese officials are promoting what they call the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” as a term for Chinese investment in Kenya. Within China itself, the Silk Road is coming on strong with forces both at its Western (Xian) and Eastern (Xinjiang) termini adding transformative infrastructure that will stimulate more activity.

A Chinese delegation came to New York last Thursday on a Silk Road tourism mission that also called at Los Angeles and Toronto. The China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) led delegates from Shanghai, Ningxia, Qinghai, Henan, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, Tibet Tourism Bureau and the China Youth Travel Service (CYTS).

According to Xiong Shanhua, the CNTA’s deputy director general of international communications and cooperation, “The aim of this mission is part of an effort in the nation’s recent strategy to build "Silk Road Economic Zone,” and to ensure faster and better development of travel and tourism in the relevant provinces and regions, and to update with Silk Road travel products among the North American trade partners.”

“The Silk Road wasn’t just trading in commodities,” said Wang Yangsheng, the cultural councilor at China’s New York City Consulate. “It was also a vital exchange of cultures. Now, as the U.S. and China continue to enjoy 35 years of formal diplomatic relations, tourism between the countries continues to thrive.”

Rail is a major part of that effort. The coming $23 billion Lanxin Railway in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region will make a Silk Rail of the Silk Road when it completely opens in 2015. At more than 1,000 miles in length, the line will make these outer reaches of China more accessible than ever. The trains will operate at about 120 miles per hour, shortening the journey between Lanzhou and Urumqi from 21 hours to eight.

According to Pang Junhai of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region Tourism Department, “Transportation advances are always crucial, and as our rail infrastructure improves we are seeing a growth in international visitors. In the last few years we’ve seen many more Americans; about 6,000 last year alone.”

The Historic Silk Road

Historically, there were several Silk Roads over land and over sea, between East and West, as different traders pursued different routes. Historians have established that trade has been going on between China and ancient Rome at least as far back as 138 BCE.

PHOTO: The historic route of the original Silk Road. Land routes are in red, maritime routes are in blue. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

There are nine Chinese provinces that were impacted by the Silk Road. Chinese Silk Road attractions range from Xian’s Terracotta Warriors to the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes. Natural wonders range from Tianshen Mountain to Qinghai Lake. Sill the most compelling aspect remains the powerful historic memory of the vast desert highway and the ancient traders who trekked it. Any comprehensive experience of just the Chinese Silk Road would require at least seven days on each side of Dunhuang.

International Silk Road

It’s important to remember that the Silk Road is not entirely Chinese; in fact, it’s not even entirely Asian. Travelers in Anatolian Turkey can tell of the string of ancient caravans that stretch across the country. The original Silk Road was a major cultural factor in the development of at least four civilizations: Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arabian and European.

Last December, in the city of Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang Province, 24 cities from eight countries along the classical Silk Road agreed to establish a "Silk Road Economic Belt" at a two-day forum. The Urumqi Consensus was signed at the Silk Road Economic Belt Cities Cooperation and Development Forum. About 150 delegates that were described as officials, scholars and entrepreneurs discussed topics relating to policy exchange, road connections, trade talks and currency circulation.

Going forward, the plan is to encourage more cooperation, development and prosperity among the countries along the longstanding trade route. The plan is big on exchanges between regional city governments, who plan to share best practices and seek synergies. Five letters of intent were signed that promised to establish liaison organs and cooperation on traffic development, trade, technology, culture, education and health.

Among the 24 cities are Almaty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Meshed (Iran) and Urumqi, Xi'an and Lianyungang (China). Representatives were also present from Turkey, Georgia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The ancient Silk Road was more than 4,000 miles long (2,400 miles of it in China), an epic path for camel-driving merchants bringing silk and porcelain to Western Europe from the Far East 2,000 years ago. The land defined as the new Silk Road covers 18 Asian and European countries.

Last September, Xi proposed the idea of the Silk Road Economic Belt during his visit to Central Asia, eyeing the cultural revival of the Silk Road, which historically links China with Central Asia and Europe, as a way of developing political and economic ties. Those countries are eager to revive the old route.

Kazakhstan had spent billions of U.S. dollars in designing and building a road between Western China and Europe that is expected to become operational in 2015. The nearly 5,000 mile long highway, from China's Khorgos, an inland port in Xinjiang, to St. Petersburg, Russia via Kazakhstan hopes to become a trunk line. New hotels in Almaty as well as the development of a ski resort are helping to create another destination along the road.

In the Uzbekistan capital of Tashkent, the International Caravanserai of Culture focuses on the cultural heritage of Uzbekistan and other Silk Road countries. According to a press release, the Caravanserai of Culture consists of a library containing thousands of books and magazines on the Silk Road history, archeology, fine art, and ethnography; and a conference-hall where various exhibitions, events and concerts are held.

The ground floor of the building houses two show-rooms with permanent exposition "Ceramics and rarities of the Great Silk Road,” and reconstruction of archeological findings, laboratory and workshop for training of restorers. The museum exposition "Ceramics and rarities of the Great Silk Road" is constantly enriched with new findings of regular scientific and research archeological and ethnographic expeditions of Caravanserai of Culture, as well as with works donated by Traditional Arts Centers of the Silk Road countries.

A major link in the chain will be added if Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani continues with his open-ness policy. From the start Rouhani has made re-engagement with the international community the hallmark of his presidency and he sees tourism as a major tool for achieving that.

Fluid Tourism Exchange

For the time being, China is at the center of Silk Road tourism. For both agents and travelers, emerging destinations in China are essential. The U.S. sent some 2.08 million travelers to China in 2013, making this country China's fourth largest source country and its most important long-haul market. During the same period, the outbound visitation of Chinese citizens to the United States has reached 1.97 Million. The U.S. is now the most popular long-haul tourist destination for travelers from China.

Xue Yaping, the director of New York’s China National Tourist Office spoke with confidence about the U.S. market to China. “We continuously get more than 2 million U.S. arrivals per year. Right now there are 117 million U.S. passport holders, so the prospects just get better.”