The owner of several eco-lodges in China, Chris Barclay, reacted to my article about Shaxi in which I despaired over what I called the ‘Lijianification’ of the village and the fact that most guesthouses and hotels there are owned by non-local people.
Chris explained to me that he employs only local people in all his properties of Yangshuo and Shaxi and that he aims at developing sustainable travel in China. His email and his 20-year experience as a business owner in China picked my curiosity and asked whether he agreed to be interviewed.
Here is a short questionnaire Chris Barclay kindly accepted to reply to.
All the pictures below were provided by Chris Barclay.
Behind the Village Inn is a mud brick barn (The Farmhouse) which like most other buildings of this kind was going to be demolished by the owner to be used as foundation for a bigger concrete building. This happens all over China and is a problem where village building permits are almost never enforced and everyone is in a rush to build the biggest house possible which means knocking down the old house, regardless of whether or not is has any historic value. Sometimes Ming dynasty buildings are demolished. I didn’t want another half-finished concrete Chinese McMansion crowding the Village Inn, so I bought his house and turned it into 5 more rooms. It was a fantastic lesson in balancing vernacular design with modern convenience, ie; how to build in enough load tolerance for a second floor concrete slab-built bathroom where before there were only a few beams to support a floor for grain storage.
The Old Theatre In Shaxi was a different case again, where my wife and I committed to restore the Pear Orchard Temple across the valley and the local person who was facilitating my meetings with government happened to run a B&B called Dragonfly, which wasn’t very successful. He and his whole family lived in the hotel and being local people without a lot of experience, they struggled to attract many foreign guests. He thought that I could do better and since I was setting up a visitor’s centre at the temple and had a long-term interest in sustainable tourism in the valley, he turned over operational rights for the guesthouse to me. It belongs to the village, but we have a kind of management lease which works out very well, since we’ve done a lot to improve and protect this heritage property.
2. Being a foreign business owner in China is certainly not an easy task. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you have encountered and you have been negotiating the relationship with local government officials.
I think the issues I’ve faced aren’t unique to people who do business in China: corruption, lax or arbitrary enforcement of laws, unfair levies, a Kasfka-esque bureaucracy. Since we do things legally and pay a lot more tax per room than 99% of Chinese hotels, the govt. gives me an audience when I request it. They’ll often take me for dinner, give me a lift to the airport, etc. They’re very friendly on a person level. The problem is those officials that you don’t know well, who are in a position to abuse power, such as one bureau official demolishing our graywater pond because he wanted to build a swimming pool on adjacent land for which we have a 30-year rental agreement (pre-paid)! So when my Chinese staff went over to talk to him after he had already demolished our containment pond and our sewerage was backing up, he shouted at her and threatened her. Now, I could go to some higher-ups that I know in government and report him, etc. but that would bring a never ending sh*t storm for us, as he would get his little friends in every other bureau to get revenge on us for making him lose face. So you pick your battles. We ended up having to rent more land at a much higher price on the other side of our property to build a new graywater pond, but I felt this would cost us less over the next 15 years than having to deal with some vengeful petty official.
It’s an investment in them and encourages a sense of ownership in a local business. They have pride in their home and show it to guests. Our turnover is lower than any of the hotels around us. Local people act more like stakeholders. In hotels where people come from far away, it’s just a job to them where they’ll likely take any savings after a few years and return home.
My own experience in China over the past 25 years is that the Chinese aren’t yet at the level of collective awareness that would lead them to care about sustainability. The pollution of cities is a great example. What’s being done about it? Moving more people into cities, increasing urban density, selling more automobiles, expanding airports, building more coal-fired power plants. How’s that going?
We maintain our principles about sustainability and hope that our example will catch on, but I don’t see any Chinese (in the tourism industry) really using this as a competitive advantage. The county governments talk a lot about it, but do almost nothing about it. I give them an annual business summary with suggestions: ban plastic bags like Lijiang, no more plastic wrapped table ware, ban disposable chopsticks, solar subsidies, make dedicated walking streets, electric carts to transfer people off bus parking into villages and the walking streets. Their answer: great ideas, we really appreciate them. We’ll get back to you. It’s been 14 years.
Don’t forget to click on the links :