The center of Yunnan's number one tourist destination came to a standstill late last week, as more than 1,000 retailers and hoteliers in Lijiang simultaneously refused to open their shops. The work stoppage, according to online reports, was staged in protest of an increasingly well-enforced old town admission fee vendors claim is inadvertently crippling local business.
The strike began on June 1, and while most shops operating in the UNESCO World Heritage Site only stayed closed until noon, several dozen others refused to open for three days. In reaction, many tourists instead visited nearby towns such as Baisha (白沙) and Shuhe (束河). The shutdown obviously affected those visiting Lijiang, but was actually undertaken in an effort to support them, say locals.
Lijiang charges an 80 yuan "maintenance fee" to all people visiting the old town — more commonly referred to as Dayan (大研). In years past, bypassing the charge was relatively easy if tourists knew which gates to use. However, ticket sellers and the local government have clamped down over the past year, making the levy payment mandatory.
To avoid this cost, many people, especially those on package tours, stay away from Dayan entirely until the ticket takers go home for the evening around 6pm. This gives store and restaurant owners — who often pay extravagant rent — only a very small window in which to do business each day. Exacerbating the situation are widely circulated rumors the old town fee will rise to 120 yuan beginning June 20.
Local business owners who participated in the strike say the charge, as well as the new-found aggressiveness with which it is enforced, has led to an enormous loss of business. One anonymous hostel owner explained that her once-profitable guesthouse was running a loss of 120,000 yuan over the past nine months. She blamed her circumstances on the old town entry fee, saying her involvement in the general strike "was a necessary step".
For its part, the municipal government says the ticketing system is vital for an assortment of reasons, including infrastructure projects, general upkeep, fire protection and other beautification outlays. In 2015, the city collected more than 2.77 billion yuan (US$433 million) from ticket sales, indicating more than 36 million people paid to enter the old town. Nonetheless, the city of Lijiang has reportedly taken out loans totaling some 3.9 billion yuan (US$594 million) to cover maintenance costs.
With all sides suffering — gouged tourists, cash-strapped shop owners and a bankrupt municipal fund alike — it appears a drastic overhaul of the system is necessary. Wang Xinbing, a tourism industry expert at Beijing International Studies University, told reporters, "The town would be better advised to adopt an alternative approach, by checking for loopholes in the tax [system] caused by the previously lax controls of the local administration."
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