Last updated: 05:00 PM ET, Tue December 01 2015

Domestic Tourists Look to China's Wild West to Escape the City

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | December 01, 2015

Domestic Tourists Look to China's Wild West to Escape the City

With the climate meetings taking place in Paris, China has been in the headlines a lot recently. Its coal-powered cities have major air pollution issues, and the urban sprawl does not leave much room for nature. Some people are surprised that China is of the opinion that something has to be done about climate change. A government-funded report said that the consequences will be dire for the Middle Kingdom if coal use continues long term. 

With its one-party system, China might actually be able to make changes more quickly than countries that would have to approve major global warming initiatives in congress or parliament. Major projects like the Yangtze River hydroelectric dams, which caused entire cities to be relocated, shows the scope and the speed with which China can act if it chooses. 

Taking a break from the city air

But what about in the meantime? More and more people in China are seeking to take a break from the pollution and endless urban sprawl by traveling. Much has been made of China’s lucrative outbound market. Countries are scrambling to lure free-spending Chinese tourists. While many of these travelers choose to go abroad, an increasing number are traveling domestically. 

Rather than going from their city to another city or visiting a crowded beach destination, more and more of these people are heading west. The mountain and desert areas in these regions are the wildest remaining places in the country. There are cities here, but they are more spaced out and not as prone to the kind of urban sprawl that characterizes the East Coast. 

Domestic tourists heading west

Destinations in the western half of the country are welcoming tourism. These areas, especially those that are inhabited by the country’s ethnic minorities, are relatively poor. On one hand, you have more tourists tromping through these rural settings, but on the other hand, the income that they bring allows people to remain in the area instead of heading to the cities themselves to find work. So, in a way, tourism is actually sustaining the rural lifestyle. 

Foreign tourists flock to places like Guangxi Province and Dali, which are both in the country’s southern mountains. More and more often, domestic tourists are heading to these places as well, but they are waiting for the low season, when prices are cheaper and the crowds of foreign backpackers have gone. 

Off the map in China (but for how long?)

More far-flung destinations are only on the radar for domestic travelers. Gansu Province, in the northwestern desert, features Buddhist grottoes in Tianshui and Dunhuang and several national parks with additional cave complexes.

China is well aware of the tourism potential in its Wild West. Many of the 14,000 miles of train track that it plans to lay in the coming years will connect these now-remote destinations with the rest of the country. 

For now, though, these western areas offer an escape for Chinese city dwellers who want some fresh air and rural scenes to escape to when the city gets to be too much.  

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