China, Expats and Sustainable Travel : an interview with Chris Barclay

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.

Double River View

The view from Chris’ property in Yangshuo

1. Chris, you came to China 20 years and set up two boutique hotel, one in Yangshuo and one in Shaxi. Can you tell us the story behind your decision-making process? Or why opening up businesses in Yangshuo and Shaxi?
These businesses began with the Mountain Retreat which I built in 2000 because so many of our clients from my executive development company, ALTEC, loved coming to Yangshuo. The problem was there were no really nice places to stay in Yangshuo in the 1990’s, so I arranged to rent the land for 30 years and built a place myself where we could have conferences, off-site team-building and other learning events where I could control the whole overall experience, from rooms to service to food and beverage. So the Mountain Retreat’s actual license is that of a training center. The other properties came about for different reasons. The Village Inn was a case where the family of our longtime manager of the Mountain Retreat, Little Fish, was building an addition to their home in Moon Hill Village, but ran out of money, so the family asked if I would be interested to make something (like a guesthouse) out of the building and finish it to my own specifications which I did, complete with an Italian rooftop restaurant, Luna.

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.

Lobby Doors, Yangshuo Village Inn, Yangshuo China

Lobby Doors, Yangshuo Village Inn

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.

Old Theatre Inn Terrace in Spring

Old Theatre Inn Terrace in Shaxi, Yunnan

3. In all of your four project locations, you employ local people only. For you, was it a logical choice or is it your way to contribute to the empowerement of indigenous people in rural China?

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.

View from Shaxi’s property

4. In your website Gingko Society, you talk about ‘sustainable travel’. Can you explain what it means and how can we be ‘sustainable travellers’?
The simple premise is Leave No Trace (take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints). The second is we don’t take large groups of people because I personally disagree with the giant tour bus way of travel and I don’t want large polluting buses taking up parking at our hotel. I’d rather have empty rooms. We like small groups who mix better and we encourage them to take our bikes out, hike or get on a horse or bamboo raft. None of these things change the local infrasturcture nor require big resources to maintain. Bamboo rafts are cut from local bamboo which grows right back. Horses eat the hay left over from rice. Both give local people more participation in the local economy. Traveling on foot or by bike give much more authentic interaction with local people and more of a chance for them to provide services away from commercial areas. So the short answer is never join a tour bus group. Go light, get out and explore.

Shaxi’s property

5. With the development of domestic tourism in China, the expansion of transportation and the uber-commercialization of travel destinations, is the idea of ‘sustainable travel’ sustainable? 

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.

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There are 4 comments

  1. jamoroki

    Reblogged this on jamoroki and commented:
    Chris Barclay went out on a limb. Today many westerners have set up in China but not so 20 years ago. Gaetan has conducted a splendid interview which I am pleased to share with my readers.

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