Could any small town in the world fathom receiving 1 million visitors in 40 days? It is not a dream, but a reality for Danzhai Wanda Town in China.
Danzhai is a county located in Guizhou province in southwestern China. With 232,300 acres of land and a population of 170,000, it is considered one of 592 of the poorest counties in China. Its lucky break came in 2014, when Wang Jianlin, CEO of the Wanda Group, decided to donate RMB 1.5 billion (approximately U.S. $225 million) to help revitalize Danzhai's economy. Wang is one of the richest men in China, with numerous real estate properties and movie cinemas. The donation package included a new tourism town, a vocational school and a Poverty Alleviation Fund. The construction proceeded rapidly, and the town was built and opened in July 2017.
Sitting upon 2,400 acres of land and covering roughly 538,200 square feet, the Miao and Dong minority-culture-themed town by the East Lake won the 54th Gold Nugget Awards – Best International Commercial and Special Use Project Awards this past June. The area is also home to the world's largest water wheel, according to Guinness World Records. Over 1 million tourists poured into the town during the first 40 days. As for economic impact, more than RMB 346 million (equivalent to U.S. $52 million) was generated, accounting for 57.1 percent of the entire county's tourism industry revenue for the first six months of 2017.
The town's one-mile-long street houses 12 hotels, including a Wanda Hotel, a Wanda cinema, 210 retailers with 339 storefronts, four town-squares showcasing indigenous cultures, and three arenas designated for bullfights, rooster fights and bird fights—efforts to preserve the native traditions. Near the lakeside are 600-acre flower terraces. With public transit, attractions, bars, restaurants and gift shops, it is a full-service destination. With an average temperature of 59°F yearly, Danzhai seems to be able to attract visitors year-round, day and night.
The town showcases an unbelievable collection of the Intangible Culture Heritages (ICHs). These are cultural assets, being strictly certified by the national or provincial governments. Danzhai presents 24 of them, including the most valuable ones such as papermaking techniques invented 2,000 years ago. I once spent a half-day on the road to search for just one ICH—a silver jewelry master—and learn about his techniques. I surely wish there was a place then that houses as many ICHs as Danzhai does today!
Some countrymen perceive the town as being "too artificial," unlike the 2,000- to 3,000-year-old natural towns in China. However, Wang Jianlin's intention was to alleviate poverty through tourism. Now the new town is full of local service providers, rapidly approaching the projected 3,000 jobs. Wang Jianlin, with his assertive military background, may never be bothered by the "artificial nature." He focuses on the purpose.
What do the locals think? One night I walked into a tea shop owned by a native vendor nicknamed Blackie. Happily pouring me black tea, green tea and white tea, Blackie showed me on his phone a 360-degree aerial map of the town. The images showed a clear-cut comparison of a piece of empty land versus an astonishing gem. Having signed a five-year lease, Blackie is somewhat concerned about the "artificial" nature. I laughed and asked, "The money you make is not fake, right? So, does it really matter?" He grinned, "That's why I gambled. Hopefully the Wanda brand will save me!"
An unconventional project is carried through by unconventional minds and people. Shang Rui-Fei is General Manager of Danzhai Wanda Tourism Town Business Development Co., Ltd. Fitting the typical "Wanda project HR profile" (male, 30 to 40-some years of age, on the go 24/7), Shang has been busy and has not seen his family 500 miles away for six months. He has visited every village in the county to scout out talents and traditions. His team has perfected every store's exterior to maintain cohesive characteristics of the town.
One of Shang's prime examples is a talented, but poor minority woman, Zhang Yi-Ping. Shang convinced a silversmith to offer her a store corner. Zhang now sells batik products, and coaches others while she keeps earning impressive awards. I cannot refuse an exquisite batik silk scarf: a pair of white peacocks on an azure blue background. The 50-hour labor piece is priced at only U.S. $50. Zhang represents many locals, who now have big hopes.
The nonresidential town completely relies on visitors to remain sustainable. The management integrates a small-town charm with big-city convenience, and introduces modern commerce practices to locals who live a primitive lifestyle. The marketing message says, "When you come to eat, play and sleep, you help 20 industry sectors in Danzhai! Do your part!" Brochures with itineraries are distributed to guide visitors to expand deeply into the county: to the waterfalls, rice terraces and the largest mercury mine in Asia. Nationwide, 134 tour operators have been contracted to bring tour groups to Danzhai.
The town is technologically equipped: free and fully covered Wi-Fi access, cashless transactions via Ali-Pay, shared bikes, et cetera. The Visitor's Center has a huge monitor that reflects visitors' activities in real time. Big data captures visitor information: the demographics, preferred travel means, spending habits and so forth. By tracking body heat, the monitor shows which town segment gathers the most or the least visitors, so the management can modify the activities offered to visitors accordingly.
Early morning on the Wanda Hotel balcony, I thoroughly enjoy the fresh air, enchanting birds and lush rolling hills. This charming town undoubtedly offers unique experiences to visitors, while strongly supporting the local economy. The town is preparing for the second phase: building a children's park, RV site and even a farm. What I see today is just a nice prologue of the Danzhai-Wanda story.
Haybina Hao is former V.P. of the International Development for National Tour Association. She is now a travel media and a business consultant. Reach her at: [email protected].
This article was originally published on eturbonews.com.
Photos Courtesy of Haybina Hao.