Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Opportunities and threats in ethnic tourism for indigenous people in Yunnan Province, China

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Yunnan is a place with a diversity of wildlife and ethnic minority. Because of the historical issue and natural landscape, the ethnic groups were poor for a long period. As a result, the central and provincial government tried some methods to help local people reduce poverty rates, including ethnic tourism. This wiki page is going to discuss the benefits and feedbacks of ethnic tourism, with the recommendations for further economic development.


Yunnan province is located in the southwest of mainland China, which has frontiers with Vietnam in the southeast, Myanmar in the west and southwest, and Laos in the south. It has provincial borders with Guangxi and Guizhou in the east, Sichuan in the north, with Tibet in the southwest. The Tropic of Cancer crosses the south of the province, and the total area of Yunnan province is 39,400 km2, ranking 8th in China[1]. The population accounts for 459.6 million, ranking 12th in China. Considering the composition of ethnic minorities in Yunnan, 1/3 population belongs to ethnic minorities, and they make up for the cultural diversity in the small region[2]. Significantly, Yunnan province is a mountainous area, and 94% of the landscape is a mountain with the attitude between 4,000 and 5,000m. Although the Han minority usually lives in lower valleys and ethnic minorities often gather in mountainous terrain, they immigrate and later mix instead of clear boundaries after the government financially-developing policies.

Due to the natural limitations of landscape and climate, indigenous people suffered from the long-term history of poverty. Statistically, Yunnan Farmers in targeted poor counties earned an annual per capita income of RMB 147 (US$27.12) in 1993, considerably far below the official poverty level (RMB 400, US$73.80)[3]. Given in Sturgeon et al.(2007)’s study, the reason why indigenous people in forest edge tend to link with high poverty rates is that, “poverty rates in developing countries tend to be higher in rural than in urban areas and forests tend to be more abundant in rural than in urban areas.” In the whole world, the evidence of overlap between forestlands and extremely poor people are obvious while they depend on the forest to earn a living. As for Yunnan ethnic minorities, they have been relied on timber products and non-timber forest products like matsutake mushrooms to maintain their well-being. But they were subject to the inconvenient transportation and frequent natural disasters.

Flooding, landslides and slope failure pushed Yunnan mountainous terrains to become potentially ‘unstable’ places. As a result, infrastructural development was inadequate and cannot satisfy the requirements of business developments. From the government report, it is shown that Yunnan only has 2,900km railways and 236,000km highways by the end of 2015, lagging behind in China[4]. Additionally, slow social and educational development triggered a deplorable health status and low level of educational attainment, which happened mostly in ethnic minorities. Therefore, they had some beneficial policies for the college entrance examination such as offering them extra entrance scores. The backward education also concentrated on the female discrimination which overrepresented among the poor. It has been witnessed often that lower rates of female participation in education, higher relative female infant mortality rates and higher rates of maternal mortality ruined the society[5]. The female status in Yunnan is lower than the other area.

Along with numerous restrictions in development, Yunnan province is famous for the gorgeous views, and abundant wildlife is attracting international and domestic tourists. Statistics show there 1,737 vertebrates, 46 of which are endangered and defined as Protected Status II[6]. Biodiversity should be no doubt the most in China compared to the other regions. According to the state report, the number of international travelers reached to 760,000 and 27.9 billion domestic tourists came to visit[1]. However, Yunnan was described as “a severely resource-deficient area” by World Bank since very limited agricultural resource base was provided for the ethnic groups living with forests and wildlife[3]. The fact is that natural landscapes created a perfect atmosphere of warm moist climate and adequate nutrition for wildlife and plantations while it had conflicted with the survival of indigenous people.

Tenure arrangements

Given the land tenure system in China, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong said, “China’s problems are rural problems, and rural problems are land problems.” It is difficult to solve the land conflicts in China for thousands of years until the Household Responsibility System (HRS) shown up in the late 1970s[7]. The essence of HRS is that land tenures still belonged to the state and collective, and farmers would gain more rights to manage and improve the rural lands. None of the timber profits generated from collective forestlands can return to indigenous people because forests are the property of collectives and the government is the representative of collectives.

Administrative arrangements

The government proposed immigrant policies to boost the economy. Indigenous people gathering in mountainous terrains were encouraged to migrate to urban cities like Kunming and Dali to meet the labor needs[8]. In spite of the cheaper labors, immigrants usually live a better life than before since they can obtain more incomes compared to when they lived a farming life under the pressure of crop market strategies. Indigenous people took the position of those in travel agencies and entertaining facilities, employed as tour guides, transportation guides, and stage performers[1].

Along with economic development in rural regions, indigenous people were supposed to get involved in administrative arrangements on where they devoted efforts. But the truth is opposite. Because of the political system in China, the government has the highest power than any other institutions, which means people are hardly saying “no” and express what they consider to the government decisions. Regarding the issue of ethnic tourism, the central government determined the overall plan of tourism-inspiring industry, followed by the provincial government’s actions of ethnic tourism[8]. Local residences have no access to the decision making progress. As a result, they were “herded” like goats and cows by the policymakers.

Affected Stakeholders

Regarding affected stakeholders, indigenous people, which are the ethnic groups, benefited from the economic development[1][8]. It was a success to local groups when the government built railways to improve inconvenient transportation and increase employment rates by implementing supporting facilities like fancy hotels and grand resorts. Residences enjoyed the convenience of the infrastructure as well as considerable incomes compared to the farming life. They believed the previous farming life was backward and miserable, reflecting the same situations like their ancestors for thousands of years. Taken as an example, Lijiang welcomed 3 million tourists from worldwide, with the revenue of 1.5 billion yuan and employment of 30,000 people[1]. Many families there converted their houses into hotels and restaurants to directly benefit from tourism.

At the same time, immigrated people were experiencing a large area of cultural loss and discrimination. Yunnan province was mainly occupied by Han minority, in which Han Chinese took charge of the mainstream culture[1]. One of the most significant reasons for ethnic minority living in mountainous villages is that they have a huge cultural shock with Han Chinese people, for example, their words and characters were not similar to Mandarin Chinese at all, and neither was the accents. Supposing the ethnic children received education in Han cultural-based school, they might be mocked for their strange Mandarin accents and their unique clothing styles. Immigrated adults might not get the job for the lack of standard mandarin speaking skills and traditional Han value recognition.

In the case study of Xishuangbanna, the major ethnic minority, Dai Nation, was assimilated by Han Chinese[1]. The Dai people abandoned the ethnic culture of Dai nationality like house styles and souvenirs. Their original bamboo-style houses were replaced by Han-style brick and concrete buildings. Instead of selling homemade handicrafts, souvenir outlets chose to supply factory-manufactured products like other famous travel spots. Few things in the store could reflect the uniqueness of local Dai culture and the kindness of Dai people. The similar cultural loss happened in Dongba Nation as well. The pictographic signs they treasured were collected and sold by the business collectors, to whoever paid for them and gathered them from the territory. Since the Han culture changed ethnic minority’s lifestyle, fewer and fewer young people can inherit the customs of artifacts from generation to generation. When collectors grabbed ancient paintings and ruined what they looked like before, it was irreversible for the culture to be preserved and recovered.

With the development of social values, security problems appeared to be quite serious recent years. There was an old saying about southwest China, “Bad surroundings makes bad civilians.” When it came to ethnic tourism in Yunnan after 2015, numerous news reported the local unscrupulous travel agencies and violent gangsters. Even though the improper issues rarely happened, they became hidden dangers and led to discredit of the industry. In Lijiang, a young lady was robbed and disfigured badly by a couple of people in late 2016, and the indifferent attitude of local police disappointed the lady after three months’ inaction[9]. The loss of social trusts slapped those who longed for a romantic and safe trip in Yunnan. By the spread of social media, the incident got to rise to the public soon, which hammered Yunnan’s reputation critically. Majority of people prayed for the poor girl and reviewed whether Yunnan was worth visiting despite safety concerns.

Other than gangster problems, local dirty travel agencies featured Yunnan ethnic tourism[10]. As was known to all, Yunnan’s jade production was second to none with the support of Myanmar exportation. Some travel guides aimed to pursue personal profits and cooperated with souvenir outlets to force consumption. Typically, the businessman would sell the fake products for several times than standard price. If the customers were not willing to pay the money, the store would assault and insult visitors without any administration of police and government. Honestly, the whole ethos in Yunnan was changed step by step through these breaking news and was passed from mouth to mouth by numerous tourists.

Interested Outside Stakeholders

The state and provincial government chose to develop ethnic tourism based on the situations of ecosystems and the characteristics of a local residence. They combined the biodiversity and cultural diversity and designed some specific tour cities to attract tourists and their investment. These cities were the most popular including Lijiang, Xishuangbanna, Kunming. The ethnic tourism model was settled initially with the help of local government, where they constructed all basic infrastructures and attracted external investments like fancy hotels and grand resorts. In the late 20th century, investors were willing to build construction in such an economically backward area because of the mid-1990s policy, “whoever invests, whoever develops, is the one to profit.”[8] Benefits all came from the tourists to investors as well as the government, meanwhile, leaving nothing to ethnic groups.


The question is whether the tourism industry improved the poverty rate of indigenous people. Generally speaking, the industry chain boosted economic development. As I mentioned above, the provincial government and external investors were beneficiaries who input funding and then get the money directly. Ironically, these actions did little to reduce poverty rates in the rural area, which represented the percentage of the population that was poor. In Donald’s research, he found Yunnan and Guizhou both conducted the tourism-developing policy under the supervision of the central government[8]. The differences in net incomes between poor and non-poor counties were much tinier in Guizhou tourism model, in other words, the rich did not get richer afterward. With a pretty higher amount of domestic and international visitors than Guizhou annually, Yunnan’s wealth inequity enlarged between 1990 and 2007.

Yunnan devoted more to forming a better urban tourism based on ethnic cultures, in which only a few of poor counties received support for tourism development. For instance, the central leadership approved ten tourism destinations can receive a high level of government support, including only two poor areas (Three Rivers Bingliu scenic area and Tengchong volcano area). Oppositely, Guizhou’s tourism administration cared more about local residences and established two routes including visiting a bunch of ethnic villages as well as some in the poorest areas. Poor residences had the privilege to get access to a tourism developing opportunity and participate directly. Although they did not become the interested stakeholders, the provincial government still separated part of rights to them and worked for reducing poverty rates efficiently.

Actually, Guizhou government focused more on small-scale industry and contributed to the participation of indigenous people. Unlike fancy hotels in Yunnan, the government-linked ethnic villages with small-scale touring attractions together by providing simple B&B (Bed & Breakfast) to tourists. It was called “nongjiale,” translated as joyous village life. The local community can also gain profits by selling handicrafts like clothing, jewelry, and paintings. Lack of efficient communication with international tourists, the community tends to lose some opportunities for attracting potential travelers. Another significant factor that the government contributed was not the modern infrastructure construction. Instead, they modified the original facilities like pathways and railways. The pathways were paved and smoothed, less expensive than that Yunnan government built highways. Importantly, there were no needs to migrate people from rural areas to urban cities, avoiding the potential conflicts in relocation. The ethnic culture was valued preciously and respected as the way of creating wealth. Meanwhile, residents can keep more to live and continue to farm, getting double incomes.


Facing the decline of the ethnic tourism industry, indigenous people were reestablishing possible methods to look for another round of economic development and improvement of lifestyles. Regarding the case study in Xishuangbanna, the model of “showcase village” has collapsed by 2005, replaced by the leadership of small-scale, specialized livestock farming to alleviate rural household poverty on the Jinuo ethnic minority[11]. The minority was the smallest minority group in China, accounting for around 20,000 people in total and gathering in the uplands of the Jinuo mountain. The traditional dominant cash crops in the region were rubber, sugarcane, and tea, only one of which is high-demand price non-timber forest product. The local community was provided with the scientific technology of raising South Yunnan Small Ear pig (known variously as Diannan Small Ear pig and Small Winter Melon pig), and the trade of pig market became a success since Chinese urban consumers increased purchasing power in high-level pork.

Mengsong local communities found new cash crops—temperate vegetables to sell to Thailand, while tea was identified as the crop to lift upland farmers out of poverty in return for the deforestation in slopes[3]. Sturgeon in his research stated, “They (indigenous people) had a renewed sense of participating in a rapidly growing economy.[3]” However, the benefits of non-timber forest products were founded on the loss of biodiversity and ecological damages in Yunnan. Tea planting industry was one of the examples that exerted huge impacts on local environments as well as matsutake (pine mushroom) collecting industry[12]. With the sacrifice of forest cover and landscape preservation, the planters and the collectors robbed the treasures from nature mother to satisfy their greediness. As a result, horrible flooding and slope failures frequently happened around territories that were changed into agricultural lands with few green covers[11].

In the context of environmentally-friendly development, the case study in Baoshan Prefecture illustrated the awareness and governance of local government. The monetary inventory in Sloping Land Conversion Programme (SLCP) worked as a considerable tool, which was doing on-farm afforestation on a large scale and compensating farmers with cash and grain[13]. The major targets were areas with slopes greater than 25˚. Incorporated with indigenous knowledge, up to 30 medicinal plants collected from Baoshan habitats were identified to be both economically viable for farmers and ecologically acceptable from a government perspective. The plantation named as D. daliensis achieved much higher returns per land unit (4000 USD/ha) than any other economic crop[13]. The ecological consequences in forest management were modified with the incorporation of the medical plantation, bringing profits for indigenous farmers.


In the context of China’s poverty reduction process, Yunnan’s responsibility is not only to boost the overall revenues for the government, but also to lower the poverty rate of indigenous people eventually. Rural people were considered not to be involved in decision-making strategies necessarily as they were not well educated, with their indigenous knowledge not acknowledged by the government. Ironically, the older indigenous knowledge seemed to be more effective in manage forests sustainability. For example, there was an old saying in Mengzi’s work,” If the seasons of husbandry be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fishes and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes and bills enter the hills and forests only at the proper time, the wood will be more than can be used.[14]” proving the sense of sustainability. Therefore, it is appropriate to develop education strategy in rural areas and inherit the indigenous knowledge. The value of traditions reflected in scripts, words and arts should be acknowledged no matter how to promote they seemed to be. The government can contribute to increasing access to basic education for school-age children from the poorest families. Meanwhile, communities can teach the importance of traditional forest management schemes to the off-springs. According to the efforts from the administrative level, poor children will at least have chances to study and alter the fate.

Furthermore, the government should continue strengthening the institution's responsibility for poverty rate reduction, including community council, along with science and technology department. Based on the political system in China, the senior officer in a county could determine the division of wealth and livelihoods. Villagers who wanted to earn more profits have to develop a good relationship with officials, favoring the corruption in small-scale regions. Avoiding the abuse of power, the central government enhanced hitting corrupted officials after President Xi’s rigorous policy in 2016. It is believed that the supervised administration would improve the top-down control to the indigenous community.

In addition, the equity of female rights should be focused including girls and women. In Chinese Confucius culture, women were not equal to men, for which women were kind of property as to men. The composition of men contained the father when a young girl grew up in a huge family, the husband when a young lady married to a gentleman, as well as the son when the lady’s husband died. This situation appeared to be much more serious in rural areas, especially in some ethnic groups. Due to strict governance from the central government, international NGOs hardly offered help to the miserable women. But some domestic NGOs were trying to pull these women out of misery, like the National Women's Union. Fortunately, the status of women was improving day by day, in which young girls can receive education and young ladies would never be traded by her father or brother.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Chow, C. (2005). Cultural diversity and tourism development in Yunnan Province, China. Geographical Association, 90, 294–303.
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  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Sturgeon, J. C. (2007). Pathways of “Indigenous Knowledge” in Yunnan, China. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 32(1), 129–153.
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  10. 观察者网(2015),国家旅游局责令调查女导游辱骂游客强迫购物,retrieved from
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  12. Yang, X., Skidmore, A. K., Melick, D. R., Zhou, Z., & Xu, J. (2006). Mapping non-wood forest product (matsutake mushrooms) using logistic regression and a GIS expert system. Ecological Modelling, 198(1–2), 208–218.
  13. 13.0 13.1 He, J., Zhou, Z., Weyerhaeuser, H., & Xu, J. (2009). Participatory technology development for incorporating non-timber forest products into forest restoration in Yunnan, Southwest China. Forest Ecology and Management, 257(10), 2010–2016.
  14. Mengzi, The Works of Mencius, retrieved from不违农时

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