China's Cultural Tourism Revolution Sparks Debate

created: 2010-05-04

Tourists to a sacred mountain-Taishan Mountain (the head of the five scared mountains of China) in east China's Shandong Province have a new attraction to see -- a lights and drama extravaganza featuring China's largest LED screen.

The outdoor performance, which producers claim is based on the area's history and culture, is part of a growing, but controversial, movement to imbue China's tourist destinations with a "cultural" content.

The Worship of Heaven and Earth on Mount Taishan, which opened Saturday, depicts ancient emperors paying homage to the Heaven and Earth, praying for peace and prosperity for the nation.

The show is staged on a 27-meter-high, 53-meter-wide altar with 146 steps, the sides of which are covered with LED lights to form China's largest screen of 567 square meters.

The performance brought the ancient culture of Mount Taishan to life and helped visitors to better understand the rituals and feel involved in historical events, said Li Liuyi, director of the performance.

The show would be performed daily from March to July every year, said a statement from the Taishan administrative committee.

"The performance is a magnificent combination of modern technology and ancient culture. It presents history, legends and folklore in a very artistic way," said Beijing visitor Zhang Hongfa.

Producer Mei Shuaiyuan said he was confident the performance, which cost 120 million yuan (17.58 million U.S. dollars), would recoup the investment within two years.

He cited Impression Liu Sanjie, another outdoor performance in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which recouped its 70-million-yuan investment in just one year, and earned more than 80 million yuan annually.

Mei also produced an outdoor show in a valley 7 km from the Shaolin Temple, known as a birthplace of Chinese martial arts. The Zen Music Shaolin Grand Ceremony show received 230,000 viewers in 2009, bringing 25 million yuan in revenue, up 10 percent during the global economic downturn.

After the success of Impression Liu Sanjie and Zen Music Shaolin Grand Ceremony, out-door performances mushroomed across China.

A team led by Beijing Olympics opening ceremony director Zhang Yimou has created five "impression series" shows in scenic spots in Yunnan, Zhejiang, Hainan and Jiangxi provinces. Two more shows in Chongqing Municipality and Taiwan are on their agenda.

Other outdoor shows have emerged in tourist destinations in Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Hunan and other parts of China.

However, not all the shows have succeeded in boosting tourism. The semi-enclosed, 1,500-seat beach theater that hosts the 200-million-yuan Impression Hainan Island show, in south China, is usually less than one third full.

"Only 10 percent of tourists want to see the performance," said a travel agency manager surnamed Wang.

Critics claim tourists are becoming jaded by formulaic entertainments.

"The shows are not boosting tourism, they are poisoning it," wrote Jiang Zongfu, vice mayor of Hunan's Linxiang City, in a posting in March on, a local news website in Hunan.

More than 70 percent of 40,000 respondents to an Internet survey just after the posting agreed with Jiang.

"Most of the outdoor shows across China are just copies of the same formula. Directors and producers rake in money form these projects but local governments are often burdened with the investment and deficits," wrote Jiang.

The problem with the unsuccessful outdoor shows was the lack of unique cultural characteristics, said Fan Xiaojun, head of Hainan's culture and sports department.

"The performances must reflect the true unique culture of the tourist spot instead of repeating a mode that the visitors are getting tired of," Fan said.

However, local governments are championing the trend as essential to the development of sustainable tourism and as a way to meet a growing demand for cultural products.

Chinese tourists were becoming increasingly culture-oriented and the outdoor performances promoted Chinese culture, said Lu Ren, a scholar with Shandong Academy of Social Sciences.


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