Chinese are fond of saying that there are two places like paradise on earth: the city of Suzhou, with its many gardens, and Hangzhou. The latter's main claim to fame is West Lake, a shining body of water ringed on one side by hills and on the other by the metropolitan area.
Hangzhou also has a long history – it served as the capital of the Wu and Yue states during China's Five Dynasties and Southern Sung Dynasty periods between the 10th and 12th centuries. Marco Polo visited
Hangzhou and called it one of the most splendid cities in the world. Hangzhou's natural beauty, combined with its historical significance, have made it a favourite destination for domestic tourists. "For a Chinese person, if you are going to become well travelled in China a trip to Hangzhou is a must," says Scott Smiley, business development manager for the Shanghai-based Destination Travel.
Now the Hangzhou government is hoping to make that true for well-travelled tourists worldwide. Last year, it adopted a 'Promote Travel to West Lake' policy and it is looking to make the city a favourite of foreign and domestic travellers alike.
Tourism is already an important part of Hangzhou's economy. In 2001, some 25m domestic tourists took boat rides on West Lake, visited the Temple of Inspired Seclusion and learned about Song dynasty hero General Yue Fei in a museum devoted to his memory. Another 819,000 tourists came from Japan, South Korea and the US, among other countries. Those visitors poured some Yn24.9bn into the economy, including US$373m in foreign currency. The number of visitors grew by 15.8 percent in 2001 and income from the sector accounted for 15.9 percent of Hangzhou's GDP. Nationwide, tourism makes up only 5 percent of GDP.
Beijing wants to boost tourism's contribution to the national economy, and Hangzhou should benefit. In an effort to get Chinese to spend some of their Yn7,000bn held in savings accounts, the central government began several years ago to increase the number of national holidays. Chinese who previously had only a week or so off now have some 20 days holiday a year, and more are promised. Tourism revenue nationwide grew 9.8 percent in 2001 compared with the previous year to Yn460bn, including domestic and international tourists.
Tourism-related businesses in Hangzhou attest to the city's growing popularity with sightseers. Sales at Kodak's 100 photo-finishing stores in Hangzhou have increased by 10-15 percent annually over the past three years, says pubic relations co-ordinator Rebecca Wang. "With the development of the tourism market, we see a lot of opportunity for Kodak," she adds. Business at the Hangzhou-based Zhejiang Hotel, which caters mostly to local tourists, grew by 15 percent in 2001 compared with the previous year, says the hotel's marketing office.
Its natural beauty makes Hangzhou a popular spot for business meetings, and introduces businessmen to the city's vacation possibilities. "Hangzhou is a resort city," says Wai Y Leong, director of marketing for the Shangri-La Hotel, Hangzhou. Businessmen "come here for two days of meetings and one day of relaxation." Some bring their families. A Motorola employee on the train from Shanghai to Hangzhou had his wife, daughter and mother with him. "I thought they could enjoy Hangzhou while I work," he told a fellow passenger.
However, facilities for larger expositions or conventions are rather limited in Hangzhou. The Zhejiang Provincial World Trade Centre currently handles most such events taking place in Hangzhou, but the city plans to start building a new Yn10bn, 3,000 sq metre convention centre beginning in August or September of this year, says the investment office of the Hangzhou Planning Commission. A feasibility study is still being drawn up. Hangzhou's government faces a classic dilemma – how to grow the city's economy without ruining the natural environment. "In Hangzhou, the environment is first," says Zhu Huan, a project officer at Hangzhou Municipal Moftec. Every company and project looking to launch in Hangzhou must submit an environmental protection plan, which must be approved by the government, he says.
To reduce pollution in the more populated downtown area, the government is promoting service industries there. Manufacturing plants are pushed to the industrial development parks in the suburbs and are subject to strict pollution standards. The government's drive to develop the non-polluting high-tech sector is also recognition that environmental protection takes precedent, Zhu argues.
Businesses attest to the government's diligence. For example, the government asks the Shangri-La to plant trees and bushes to help beautify the city, says Leong. It also won't let the hotel cut down the 360-year old camphor trees on their property. "Not even a branch," she says. "They have a lot of restrictions. You get fined if you don't follow the rules and they have people come by and check [that the hotel is compliant]."
Still, the urge to earn money is sometimes stronger than the desire to protect the environment. Though pollution in the wellknown area around West Lake is strictly policed, companies granted licences to develop the hilly nature areas around Hangzhou don't seem too concerned with environmental protection, says Destination Travel's Smiley. His company leads hiking tours there.
The newer nature areas in Hangzhou "are really struggling to attract tourists because there are more and more of these types of places" opening up, he says. Environmental protection policies there seem to be less strict. "From what I see, it's mostly left up to the company [that is given the licence to exploit the area]," says Smiley.
With stiff competition, the environment suffers. "Often it's not in their interest to put any limits on the number of people who are allowed in," he adds. More people will likely mean more pollution.