Nine million people visited Kunming's World Horticultural Expo last year, allowing the government to portray the six-month show as the country's successful first attempt to stage a large international event. But the city's biggest challenge has only just begun – averting the collapse of the property market bubble that the show inspired.
Proving that the government's huge investment in new infrastructure was justified will depend on improved visitor numbers to the south-west and stronger economic growth statistics that have in the past proved to be manipulable. Rather more easily, observers will be able to judge from occupancy levels in the dozens of new hotels and scores of glass-fronted skyscrapers that now dominate the town's skyline.
The flower show that some suggested was a consolation prize for China losing the right to stage the 2000 Olympics transformed Kunming from a balmy backwater into the latest example of Chinese urban development. Even by Chinese standards, the speed of development was phenomenal.
In just three years before the event opened last year, the cityscape was changed irrevocably. Yunnan provincial government told its people that, "We must struggle hard in order to build Kunming into an international tourism centre." To back up its slogans, Yunnan unleashed a flood of investment. Tens of thou-sands of residents were moved out of the city centre as bulldozers razed the rows of three-storey, wood-slatted mews that gave Kunming its distinctive look.
At the closing ceremony in early November, one municipal official estimated that the direct cost of building the pavilions and staging the event was in excess of Yn 1.6bn. Other reports have said that an additional Yn20bn was spent on related works approved under the development plan drawn up to stage the event. The city is now encircled with new highways, main roads leading to the centre have been upgraded, a new airport passenger terminal was built and dozens of other improvement schemes – both large and small – were implemented. Five million white plastic pots bearing a profusion of flowers such as pansies, daisies and orchids were lined in beds along street pavements and around the base of roadside lamps.
New airport terminal
State-run companies poured extra billions into office towers, commercial complexes and accommodation blocks. A new passenger terminal, the fourth largest in the country, was built for the city's Wujiaba Airport. An injection of Yn1bn completed the five-phase complex, which includes a 59,700-sq-metre terminal building, a 106,000-sq-metre aircraft parking apron and a 24,000-sq-metre car park. The airport handling capacity has risen from 2m people to approximately 7.5m annually.
An additional Yn6bn has been invested in improving power, water supply, transport and telecommunications systems.
As with all grandiose schemes, a good idea lurked in the background. Horticulturalists the world over know China's south-western corner as the home of a cornucopia of plant species. Since the first explorers started taking clippings for a curious scientific community, an estimated 3,000 separate species native to Yunnan have been grown in the gardens of the West.
Among the popular varietals that have been found from the area are camellias, gardenias, azaleas, magnolias, primroses and rhododendrons. Foreign tourists, particularly the middle aged and the elderly from Australasia, South Africa and Europe flocked to the southern province.
The expo tapped into a new market for the province, which had hitherto mostly attracted backpackers to hang out in Lijiang and skirt the fringes of the Golden Triangle.
The economics of boosting the discretionary spending power of the tourists the province draws was one of the factors behind the decision to use the expo as a platform to establish Kunming as a standalone draw-card.
With its benign weather the propagandists have latched on to the slogan City of Eternal Spring, which is not too far off the mark – spectacular mountain passes and a stock of colourful ethnic minority peoples and cuisines, Yunnan is well positioned to emerge one day as a first rank tourist destination.
"Expo ?99 benefits many areas," the man who led the Expo construction boom, Li Jiating, the provincial governor, said at the closing ceremony. "It can help build up China's image and facilitate a wider opening-up of the province. It is conducive to the implementation of a sustainable development strategy, fostering pillar industries, and improving the city's infrastructure. Development is the irrefutable argument."
Behind the certainty of the propaganda hoardings, the statistics emerging in the wake of last year's Kunming Expo suggest that rather more was lost than gained from the biggest single international festival ever staged on the mainland.
A local official in the hotel industry says that occupancy rates since the expo closing ceremony have slumped back to 20 per cent, the level that prevailed before the event. He says that at the peak of the festival the better hotels were able to boast an 80 per cent booking rate: "There are almost 60 hotels in this city that were built with the horticultural show in mind. We don't know where the stable high inflows of tourists are going to come from. This is now the US$64m question."
Without the appeal of the expo, a part of the international tourism calendar, it is likely that Yunnan will remain dependent on domestic tourists to meet its visitor targets.
It is widely acknowledged, however, that work units all over the country were told to book their annual employee holidays and retired staffers' excursions in Kunming. It was an expensive obligation. One retired Beijing professor says that his work unit paid more than Yn5,000 a head to take 20 former senior workers to the province for a week.
The wider provincial economy was also boosted by the staging of the expo, though whether the growth was sufficiently impressive to maintain its momentum is open to doubt. The most up-to-date figures show that Yunnan's gross domestic product grew by 7 per cent during the first nine months of 1999 compared with the same period in 1998.
The figures showed that tertiary industry – services and advanced value-added processing – generated almost half the increase for the first time.
If tourist numbers fail to meet the high levels set in 1999, then the local officials will find it difficult to produce a growth in 2000 that matches or exceeds the previous level.
Many initiatives will bear long-term dividends. Cut flower production in the province has grown to the point that the Hong Kong-based shipping company, Orient Overseas Container Line, has sought a joint venture with the Ministry of Railways to provide a once-a-week refrigerated container freight service from Kunming to Guangzhou port.
A slowdown in the local economy could serve to highlight the extent of corruption that was involved in the construction boom. The official Yunnan Daily has already reported that in excess of 900 corruption cases involving tens of billions of yuan were filed in the province in the first nine months of 1999.
A special taskforce of the Public Security Bureau in Kunming was investigating six cases in which more than Yn9bn had been diverted from official coffers, the newspaper said. The extent to which underground figures are involved in the construction industry is openly acknowledged in Kunming.
One local businessman said that many tower blocks had been ?rescued' during construction by well-known local businessmen and, in one case, a nationally famous actress who has been investigated for economic crimes. One of the biggest blocks had been built by the son-in-law of the president of one of China's big four banks, he added.
"It is easy for money to become respectable if it has been invested in nationally important projects that make the country look good," he said.
The government's attempts to diversify the local economy by lever-aging the opportunity of the expo gained impetus from an earlier corruption scandal in the tobacco sector, on which the Yunnan government is heavily dependent for its tax revenues.
The imperious ways of Yuxi Hongta Tobacco's former chair-man, Chu Shijian, ensured Beijing's support for the tourism drive. Chu was last year jailed for life after a court found that he was guilty of embezzling US$3.5m from the Yn5bn-a-year giant.
Things to do in Kunming
Kunming is short on specific sights but it is a very pleasant place to explore on foot. The city has a large and unusual pet market in Jingxing Jie. A minority village is located on Haigeng Lu and the city also contains the Minority Folk Custom Museum. A US$55m golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus and built by Keppel Land of Singapore has opened at Yiliang. Spring City resort is one hour's drive from the city centre. Kunming Country Golf Club is some-what closer, just 20 minutes drive from the city.
The Shilin (stone forest), located about 120km south-east of Kunming, is a spectacular collection of limestone pillars that has been developed into a surreal rockery. There is also the less well-known Fungi Forest, which contains karst caves and a waterfall. Away from the main tourist trail, there are many fine walks in the area. Also good for walking, and closer to Kunming, are the Western Hills on the western side of Dian Lake, although this area has become heavily polluted. On the opposite shore in Chenggong county is an orchard region that also specialises in native flowers such as camellias, azaleas, magnolias and orchids. There is a minorities' theme park on the north-eastern side of the lake that has specially built villages of 26 Yunnan minorities, populated by singing, dancing, ?typical' inhabitants.
Most of the popular restaurants in Kunming serving local cuisine are to be found on Haigeng Lu. Top Restaurant, Marco Polo, Carrina and Chiu Choow all have good reputations, while the Jixindian Flavour City is a good place to sample ?across-the-bridge' rice noodles, the most famous Yunnan dish. Goat's cheese is another recommended local speciality. The best street food, featuring grilled cheese, hotpot, fried chilli snacks and loaves of soda bread stuffed with meat and spring onions, can be found in the lanes around Dongfeng Xilu and Jinbi Lu. Other popular restaurants include the Carina on Dongfeng Donglu and the Guanghua Street Snacks and Noodles Restaurant on Guanghua Lu.
Coffee and cake shops a relic from French colonial times are abundant throughout the city. Western food is served at most of the leading hotels such as the King World, Kunming and Holiday Inn. The Holiday Inn also has Thai and Yunnanese restaurants, and a disco. The bars most popular with foreigners include Wei's Place on Huancheng Nanlu and Charlie's Bar at the Holiday Inn. There are also the Minhong and Haosheng nightclubs as well as billiards and bowling clubs. The Cui Hu (Green Lake) area in the centre of the city contains popular jogging routes. Performances of Yunnan opera are given on Sunday afternoons in Cuihu Park.
Kunming's major retail areas include the Sakura Shopping Centre on Dongfeng Donglu and the Golden Dragon Shopping Market on Baita Lu. There is also a Wal-Mart at Xiaoxiamen and a Pricemart on the West Second Ring Road. Green tea, jade, batik and minority embroidery are among the local specialities.
It is worth making an effort to reach some of the more remote areas where the minority cultures have not yet been swamped by Han Chinese migrants. Dali, on Erhai Lake with the impressive 4,000-metre Cangshan mountains behind it, is a centre of the Bai nationality. It is a relaxing place to stay, containing a market and many interesting villages, and has become very popular with back-packers. Dali contains some of the best marble in China.