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Uighur terrorism thwarting China’s push to draw tourists to country’s wild west

Chinese tourists ride camels across the dunes at Dunhuang, in northwestern Gansu province, China, on Aug. 30, 2014. (Stuart Leavenworth/McClatchy)
Chinese tourists ride camels across the dunes at Dunhuang, in northwestern Gansu province, China, on Aug. 30, 2014. (Stuart Leavenworth/McClatchy) McClatchy

A Shanghai development group opened a gleaming hotel earlier this year in Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road oasis that is the westernmost city in China. With 15 private dining rooms, a beauty salon, gym and swimming pool, the Yue Xing Jin Jiang International Hotel became Kashgar’s first five-star hotel, built with hopes of attracting hordes of elite Chinese travelers.

It hasn’t turn out that way. Repeated terrorist attacks and outbreaks of violence in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where Kashgar is located, have hammered the region’s budding tourism industry. Earlier this month, the Yue Xing Jin Jiang was largely empty, with a security guard looking forlorn as he manned an X-ray machine at the entrance.

For China’s Communist Party, the rapid decline of tourism in this frontier region represents a blow to its larger propaganda efforts. For years, Beijing has attempted to portray Xinjiang as a place of harmony and economic opportunity, not a cauldron of ethnic conflict between Muslim Uighurs and ruling Han Chinese. This portrayal is important for China’s government as it seeks to attract both investment and Han Chinese migrants to Xinjiang, an audacious exercise in social engineering.

But China’s strategy could fail if it can’t persuade Chinese travelers and investors that Xinjiang is a safe destination.

“Ironically, this is happening even as the government is putting money behind popularizing Xinjiang as a tourist destination,” said Pal Nyiri, a professor of global history at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, who has studied tourism in China.

In recent years, China’s government has invested huge sums in Xinjiang tourism, not including $23 billion for a new high-speed rail line to Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, slated to open later this year.

Xinjiang, which makes up one-sixth of China’s land mass, is no stranger to sectarian violence. Uighurs and Han Chinese have clashed for centuries, as have Uighurs and other would-be rulers, including Mongols and Russians. But since April 2013, the violence has increased, with hundreds of people killed in terrorist attacks or police actions against suspected insurgents. The most recent large incident came in July, when, according to the government, attackers killed 37 civilians, and police in turn killed 59 “terrorists” in Kashgar's Shache County.

Even before that latest episode of bloodshed, tourism was down sharply in Xinjiang. Zheng Sui, general manager of the Xinjiang International Travel Agency, told McClatchy that his tourist bookings dropped at least 40 percent in the first half of the year. Zheng, who runs one of Xinjiang’s largest tourism agencies, said that he and other travel agencies are trying ease fears through increased advertising campaigns.

Even China’s state-run media, a big cheerleader of Xinjiang development, has acknowledged the tourist downturn. Global Times, an arm of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, recently surveyed five hotels in Kashgar; they reported bookings were down 60 percent this summer.

Fears about violence have grown so strong that they appear to be affecting investment decisions in other industries, which has the Communist Party scrambling to repair the damage.

Last year, President Xi Jinping announced plans for reviving the historic Silk Road as a modern-day trade corridor. Xinjiang is crucial to that effort, an important source of China’s oil and gas and also a growing hub for manufacturing, ranging from textiles to aluminum.

“I have to admit that it has certainly influenced the confidence of investors,” Zhang Chunlin, director of the Xinjiang Development and Reform Commission, told Global Times. “But we have to understand that the influence is temporary and it won’t have a huge impact in the long run.”

Tourism officials are quick to note that none of the attacks in Xinjiang have targeted tourists. They claim the streets of Kashgar are generally safe. That was the experience of a McClatchy reporter who spent three days in Kashgar, eating grilled lamb at a night market and strolling through narrow streets with shops offering dried dates, Uighur musical instruments and colorful silk scarves.

Inside the Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China, the gardens and prayer hall were quiet, other than the sounds of cooing doves. A visitors sign extolled China’s tolerance of religion, stating that “all ethnic groups live friendly together here,” even with what happened eight weeks ago.

Outside this mosque, on July 30, a group of attackers knifed and killed Jume Tahir, the mosque’s imam and one of Beijing’s main Muslim allies in Xinjiang. Three weeks later, authorities announced they had arrested an 18-year-old Uighur man for the murder, which stunned China’s Muslim world.

Many Uighurs in Kashgar have divided loyalties. They deplore efforts by Han authorities to assimilate Uighurs, using schools, jobs and housing as enticements. Human rights groups say police regularly employ torture and other intimidation tactics to extract confessions or gain tips on possible dissidents. Recently, police have cracked down on Uighurs wearing long beards and certain types of Islamic dress, including women wearing hijab-type headscarves.

At the same time, the increasing radicalism of militants has alarmed and angered many Uighurs, including some trying to make a living working with Chinese and foreign tourists.

“Killing someone at a mosque? That is wrong,” said Yusuf Abol Kasem, a lifelong Kashgar resident and a tourist guide for the last 15 years. “A mosque is a house of God, a place of peace. That is why I get so angry when things like this happen.”

As of 2013, about 300,000 people worked in Xinjiang’s tourism industry, which handles more than 50 million tourist trips yearly, according to government figures. Some of those trips combine business and tourism, such as the thousands of people who attended this month’s China-Eurasia Expo in Urumqi.

Alessandro Rippa, an anthropologist at the University of Aberdeen, says a big question is whether the drop in tourism is spreading beyond Kashgar and Urumqi to other parts of Xinjiang and other provinces. There’s some evidence that’s happening. In Dunhuang, a city in northern Gansu province known for its Buddhist cave paintings and picturesque sand dunes, tourist officials confirmed to McClatchy that the number of visitors has declined this year, including a big drop in foreign tourists.

Hundreds of miles to the south, on the other side of Kashgar, near China’s border with Tajikistan, the story is similar. In the scenic mountain town of Tashkurgan, the village markets are calm, but the hotels and restaurants are short of customers.

According to one tourist guide, Tashkurgan once attracted large numbers of Europeans crossing the border from Pakistan, but that dried up after the 9/11 attacks. The local government has since tried to attract Chinese tourists to the area, but road conditions and terrorism concerns have held down the numbers.

Josh Summers, a native Texan who has lived in Urumqi since 2006, is the operator of a popular Xinjiang travel website, FarWestChina.com. He said he received “constant email queries this summer about the safety in Xinjiang.” He noted that he received similar emails after the 2009 riots in Urumqi that left roughly 200 people dead. But the current tourist drop is having more impact, he said, because it started earlier and extended through the tourist season.

Chinese authorities, he said, are trying to send the message that the terrorists will be stamped out. Earlier this year, after a bombing in Urumqi, Summers and other city residents watched as security forces paraded tanks and personnel carriers through the city.

“I think that show of force was for two reasons,” said Summers. “One to deter anyone who might think they could get away with something. But it was also to calm the fears of locals here, and let them know that the police will protect you.”

It remains to be seen whether tanks and heavy security will help lure Chinese tourists back to the area. On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, it is easy to find netizens who have been warned by relatives not to contemplate a vacation in the country’s wild west.

“I was chatting with my mother after lunch, saying I would go to Xinjiang after graduation,” wrote “A. Rang,” a Weibo commentator. “My mum shouted at me: ‘If you dare going to such a chaotic place I’ll cut off our mother-son relationship.’”

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.

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