Ever since James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon, about a mythical city called Shangri-La, the 1933 classic has come to define fantasies of Himalayan hideaways.
But the fictional utopia turns out to exist after all.
Nestled in a valley in Yunnan province, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Shangri-La has a population of about 100,000. It is also one of China’s most popular tourist attractions.
Just a decade ago, the idyllic Himalayan town – still known locally as Zhongdian – was off-limits to foreigners. In fact, until 1999 the area was largely inaccessible except by mountain road. The government then approved a local airport.
The name change came later, following claims from other Himalayan regions that they were Hilton’s source of inspiration. The rivalry was settled in 2001, when the Chinese government declared Zhongdian to be the ‘official’ Shangri-La.
So, paradise found. But now the challenge isn’t so much about marketing it, as maintaining it. Tourists and locals alike complain about the traffic jams, and the hawkers walking the cobbled streets touting fake Rolex and Ray-Bans. Probably not what Mr Hilton had in mind.
Before its name change, Shangri-La received just 20,000 visitors. Soon after it was welcoming 2.6 million of them. And their spending too – local government revenues rose six-fold between 1996 and 2006.
“Two years ago, 50,000 to 60,000 people showed up every day,” says A Wa, Director of the Tourism Bureau of Diqing Tibet Autonomous Prefecture. “We had nowhere to put them. We had them staying in the spas, the schools, everywhere. One time, I had 28 tourists in my own home!”
Among those capitalising on the tourism boom is Baima Duoji. Born in Zhongdian Duoji is a respected documentary maker. Now he is a hotelier too, having opened the Songtsam Hotel.
“I don’t know anything about running a hotel,” he admits. “But I wanted to showcase the beauty of this place to everyone.”
Songtsam is so successful that Duoji has opened four more hotels around the region. Among his rivals is the upmarket Banyan Tree resort. Other high-end boutique chains have snapped up property too.
Duoji is unfazed by the competition. His secret? He boasts that every room in his hotel comes with a view: “When you open the window, no matter which angle, you can see the best scenery.”
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