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CHINA: Cashing In on ‘Earthquake Tourism’?

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, May 27 2009 (IPS) - Cashing in on huge public interest in one of the deadliest earthquakes of recent history, China has officially endorsed ‘disaster tourism’ as a form of economic subsidy to devastated areas. Home debris and whole sections of partially wiped out cities and villages during last year’s massive earthquake in southwestern China will now be open to tourists, the state media announced this week.

"There is a huge tourism market in the ruins," Wu Min, deputy director of the Sichuan provincial tourism department said to the Xinhua News Agency. "We can not block the tourists out and we also hope the tourists watch their behaviour and not hurt the quake survivors’ feelings."

The severity of the quake, which ripped through the mountainous areas of Sichuan province on May 12 last year, killing 90,000 people and the government’s initial tolerance of reports from the disaster area have generated huge interest among a Chinese public unaccustomed to official news of public suffering and devastation.

Ruins from the quake have become a draw for visitors – attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists – the state agency reported. Donghekou village where only 300 of more than 1,400 villagers survived a landslide triggered by the earthquake is now amongst the hottest tourist destinations in the Sichuan province. More than 260,000 tourists have visited the Donghekou Relics Park since it opened last November.

As a site of some of the most devastating earthquakes in modern history, China should be equipped to deal with remembrance, with consigning the pain to the past and drawing lessons. But, a year after the Sichuan earthquake the country is grappling with to how to commemorate the dead without raising uncomfortable questions.

Chinese leaders have delivered on their promises and days before the first anniversary released the first official toll of student deaths – saying that 5,335 children were dead or missing in the earthquake. But, they have not provided a list of names and have refused to face up to charges by parents that corruption and mismanagement were to blame for the collapse of thousands of school buildings.

Fearing that pain could boil into anger and unrest, they have refused to allow parents to grieve at the sites of school debris where children perished. Ad- hoc commemoration ceremonies have been banned and civil initiatives to erect memorial stones in the earthquake zone have been quashed.

"They told me such memorial stones would label Sichuan as a disaster area and that now we should focus on rebuilding and not on commemoration," Zhong Guangmao, an artist and designer in the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu told the Southern Weekend newspaper. Zhong was among the first to submit several proposals for creating public memorials in Chengdu but was refused.

But, while shying away from permanent memorials for the dead, officials have encouraged the boom of so-called ‘earthquake tourism,’ insisting this would help the economic recovery of devastated area.

Some 46 million people were affected by the 7.9-magnitude quake – the most destructive earthquake to strike China in more than thirty years. Sichuan authorities estimate that 1.5 million people lost their jobs and land in the disaster.

The numbers of tourists that have swarmed to the earthquake zone in recent months are astonishing. According to the Sichuan Tourism Office, during the Chinese New Year holiday more than 7 million people flocked to the mountainous region where the earthquake wiped out whole towns, squashing schools, factories and homes.

May Day weekend saw another spike of tourists – with 2.9 million people arriving in Chengdu and heading out on specially designed one-day package tours of the earthquake zone. Such tours include visits to quake relics parks, public cemeteries where the ashes of many dead are buried, and sightseeing platforms to observe panoramic views of the destruction.

The boom in disaster tourism has received official endorsement not only from local officials but from party leaders too. A report prepared by the communist party school in Dujiangyan – one of the most ravaged cities in the earthquake zone – has called on officials to "actively promote the earthquake tourism brand" in order to transform destruction into a "valuable tourism resource."

Some localities have even issued vouchers, encouraging residents to travel to the earthquake area as tourists and help its recovery by sightseeing and spending. The government of Macao Special Administrative Region for instance, has subsidised Macau tourists to Sichuan with vouchers of 1,500 RMB (220 US dollars) each.

Some who worry that China lacks the courage to reflect on and preserve the painful memories of calamities see the craze of ‘earthquake tourism’ as a perturbing sign.

"We need an earthquake museum, we can not let the memory of Sichuan be buried as it happened with the lessons of Tangshan earthquake," commentator Huang Xiaowei said in the Economic Observer. "Without a proper place to remember and reflect, the pain of quake survivors is being transformed into a thing for consumption."

One of China’s largest natural calamities occurred in the middle of the country’s political isolation during the Mao Zedong’s era. Anywhere between 250,000 and 650,000 people were killed when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in July 1976 flattened the city of Tangshan in northern China.

At that time, the Chinese government – which advocated self-sufficiency in everything from food to medical aid – barred international relief efforts and dealt with the emergency on its own. Thousands of people are believed to have died because of China’s refusal.

It took the communist leadership 3 years to release the official death toll. The first published witness accounts of the disaster emerged only in 1986 when the Tangshan authorities began an earthquake awareness campaign among school children. But, all the physical remains of the quake have been removed and the newly rebuilt city gives away little as to its earthquake history.

Disasters continue to be sensitive topics even today when death tolls are no longer regarded as state secrets. In Chengdu, which sits near the Longmenshan fault line where the May 12 earthquake occurred, few people were aware of the area’s earthquake-prone reputation.

"It was very scary because we didn’t have any disaster awareness," said Zhou Jianzhong, a lawyer based in Chengdu. "We realised we had lived on the brink of a disaster without knowing it. None of us had been taught any disaster preparedness or the history of the earthquakes in the province."

Historical memory of disasters is important also as an emotional bond between people, insists Fan Jianchuan, private owner and curator of the only existing earthquake museum in China – in the Sichuan province town of Anren.

"A tragedy like the Sichuan earthquake bares the humanity in all of us," he says. "So much of our traditional moral values have been lost in the trappings of money-making that it is important to see the outpouring of grief and support that Sichuan experienced after the disaster to remind ourselves who we are."

The constraints of political culture aside, the disproportionally high number of collapsed schools – 11,687 by the latest account provided by Sichuan provincial authorities – and the high number of student deaths, have put Chinese leaders in a bind as to how to commemorate and how to educate its public.

Unofficial estimates place the number of dead children as high as 8,000. But those who have attempted to compile their own lists have been harassed and intimidated. The police detained Sichuan writer Tan Zuoren recently, and Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwiei says at least 20 of his volunteers seeking to compile information about the dead children have been harassed.

The parents of children who died in the rubble of classrooms say the buildings were poorly constructed and were the first to crumple, while government buildings nearby withstood the tremors. But, authorities have refused to accept any blame, saying the severity of the earthquake was the cause of the building failures.

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