In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a rural revitalisation strategy during the 19th CPC National Congress and affirmed the strategy as the leading agenda for government work on agriculture, rural ideas and rural residents. The Chinese central government considered rural tourism to be one of the most important actions to revitalise rural areas and to improve villagers’ quality of life. While rural tourism creates job opportunities and narrows the development gap between urban and rural areas in China, it poses challenges to the rural environment and the uniqueness of its culture.

What is Rural Tourism?

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines rural tourism as “a type of tourism activity in which the visitor’s experience is related to a wide range of products generally linked to nature-based activities, agriculture, rural lifestyle/ culture, angling and sightseeing.” These activities take place “in non-urban (rural) areas with the following characteristics: i) low population density, ii) landscape and land-use dominated by agriculture and forestry and iii) traditional social structure and lifestyle.”

During trips in the rural areas, tourists participate in activities, lifestyles and traditions of rural communities. Common activities for tourists include boat trips, workshops in cooking and handicraft, local tours in villages and homestays with a local family.

In the past years, China has undergone rapid development under the government’s strategic plan and ambition to promote rural tourism. In 2018, China released a three-year action plan to promote and upgrade the development of rural tourism. The Chinese government encouraged local governments to improve service standards such as accommodation and transportation, and to encourage local community participation in rural tourism. In 2019, rural areas in China received 3.2 billion tourists in total, contributing over 850 billion yuan to the tourism sector.

In 2020, at a forum on the development of rural tourism in China, Zeng Yande, an official with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said that rural tourism is expected to become a major industry of economy in two to three years. In the same year, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued a list of 680 key villages for promoting rural tourism, with the aims to implement rural vitalisation and to boost the further development of rural tourism. The rural revitalisation strategy, proposed in 2017, set the overall goal of building rural areas with business opportunities, pleasant living environments and effective governance.

On the one hand, rural tourism has improved the lives of many in China’s rural areas. First, it has improved the rural infrastructure such as wireless networks and waste collection points. Second, it has created job opportunities and has increased villagers’ income. For example, rural tourism in the Shimen Shanzhuang village in east China’s Shandong province creates jobs for more than 860 people each year. The village receives over 400 000 tourists each year, with a total revenue of 4 million yuan. Additionally, rural tourism in Shanglin county, a county of China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, has helped to boost the local economy with the special karst landscape.

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On the other hand, rural tourism, without a good coordination and sustainability plan, may also pose negative impacts to the rural areas. 

Research from in 2020 has shown that the water quality has significantly deteriorated in the Erhai Lake Basin due to land use change along with the boom of rural tourism since 2005 in the area. Also, commercial success from rural tourism in the famous historic old town Lijiang has come with environmental damage and cultural degradation. The ancient waterways have become contaminated with sewage and the cobbled streets transformed into a red-light district of nightlife. Moreover, residents in Chongdu Valley have complained that their area has become too urbanised to be considered a rural community. It now has a karaoke store, a movie theatre and fast-food restaurants. Tourism development has become a challenge for preserving the authentic rural environment and landscape.

What is Being Done?

In order to mitigate the negative impacts of rural tourism and to promote a sustainable development approach, the Chinese central government released an important guideline on promoting sustainable development of rural tourism in 2018. The guideline affirmed five development principles, including the need for local governments to promote green and quality development, and to adapt to local conditions, including climate and cultural heritage.

While rural tourism could lift people out of poverty and boost economic growth, it is important for the Chinese governments especially at the local levels to take a sustainable development approach. Rural tourism should not be developed at the expense of the environment and the cultural uniqueness of the rural areas.