Thriving homestays boost rural tourism development

By Yang Feiyue (China Daily) 11:19, January 24, 2024

A decision Zheng Yaming made three years ago to forsake city life to run a rural homestay helped him find his true calling.

Zheng, who is in his 30s and comes from a village in Jinzhai county, Anhui Province, worked in hotels in Shanghai for nine years from 2012.

"I was away from my family a lot and only got to see them once every month most of the time," he said.

He continued with this work, but when his second child was born in 2021, he felt the need to be closer to his family.

"The birth made me aware that I needed to spend more time with my family and find some meaning to my life," Zheng said, adding that all he did in his spare time in Shanghai was go to a bar and chat with his friends about how to make money.

At the end of 2021, Zheng quit his city job after being offered the manager's post at a rural homestay that was about to open in the mountains of Jinzhai.

"The business was expected to be a model for homestay development in the area, and the local government was supporting it," he said.


However, life for Zheng was much harder than it was in the city, especially at the start, when food deliveries were disrupted due to sudden flooding in March 2022. Four months later, the area experienced a severe drought.

As Zheng was put to the test in his new job, he was offered a silver lining in the form of concerted efforts from rural villagers and the local authorities.

He worked with the villagers to ensure supplies reached guests during the flooding by creating a temporary road over muddy ground. He also drove guests across the mountains to the homestay.

"I sensed that everyone at the homestay was giving help and support to make a successful go of the business," Zheng said, adding that for the first time this gave him a sense of purpose beyond merely making money.

Despite the rough times in 2022, the homestay earned revenue of more than 2 million yuan ($279,900) — a major confidence boost for the villagers in developing rural tourism in Jinzhai and the surrounding area.

Years of working in big cities provided Zheng with the knowledge needed for homestay development in the county, where villagers approached him to ask about hotel service procedures, hygiene standards, and how to promote their homestays online.

"I suddenly felt that my years of working in big cities finally meant something," he said.


A visitor reads at a homestay in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, in November. LI BO/XINHUA

Over the past year, Zheng has organized six homestay skills training sessions, providing on-site guidance to 18 such businesses in the area. Some 500 homestay operators have visited his business to receive field training.

Zheng said he was thrilled to see 30 homestays opening in Jinzhai after his arrival, adding that service quality has improved significantly. "The going price for local homestays has risen by 30 percent," he added.

These positive changes have earned Zheng recognition and compliments from the villagers.

"This genuine gratitude and respect from others is quite precious, and something I rarely felt in big cities," Zheng said.

As he has settled down, he enjoys more time with his family members, who are becoming fond of the homestay.

"My son has made many friends through my business, and he enjoys going door to door visiting households in the neighborhood," said Zheng, who has developed a healthier lifestyle.

"I quit drinking after work, and instead take a walk in the mountains. I feel good being close to nature, going to bed early and getting up early," he said.


Staff members work at a homestay in Ningbo, Zhejiang province. JIANG HAN/XINHUA

Change of scene

Like Zheng, Huang Jie decided to get away from city life to enjoy a change of scene. In May, he started work at a rural homestay near the Nalati scenic spot in Xinyuan county, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Huang, who is in his 40s, has two decades of management experience at leading hotels in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.

Three years ago, he started to run his own business in Hunan Province, but when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his plans, he took up the offer to run a rural villa in Xinjiang.

The venture, a joint effort between the local government and major travel agency Trip.com Group, is aimed at upgrading tourism services in the area.

A local official who used to be Huang's tutor at school asked him if he could come to Xinyuan to help with homestay development, and Huang readily agreed.

Against this rural backdrop, Huang has cast off his business suits in favor of outdoor attire, assuming a role similar to that of a farm owner.

He said that when guests arrive, he greets them in a casual manner.

"I might make them a pot of tea, pour them a glass of wine, or even offer them a cigarette while chatting with them about local travel tips or trivia about daily life. In a five-star hotel, such informality is not allowed, but the guests who come here really appreciate this kind of approach," he said.


Decorations at a homestay in Wuyuan, Jiangxi Province. DU LIANYI/CHINA DAILY

During his interactions with guests, surprises have come Huang's way.

In August, a guest from Shanghai decided to invest in a local art performance business after hearing from Huang about the lack of nighttime entertainment at the scenic spot. Huang put the guest in touch with the local authorities.

With his experience, Huang has helped raise the guest occupancy rate at the homestay above 50 percent, and its overall occupancy rate is nearly seven times higher than those at similar accommodations in surrounding areas. Guest reviews have also improved.

Since September, homestay owners in the area have flocked to Huang's villa to learn about his recipe for success, and have even sent their employees to him for internships.

As Huang's business makes its presence felt on the local tourist map, villagers living in the Nalati area have found opportunities to make extra income.

To entertain the rising number of guests, herdsmen offer them horse riding and distinctive cuisine from rural areas of Xinjiang.

Since Huang arrived in the area, more than a dozen new restaurants have opened.

Huang, who has made friends with many local herdsmen, said he originally planned to stay for just a year, but is now moving his family to the area.


Rising market

The successful career changes made by Zheng and Huang mirror the rising rural tourism market nationwide.

Last year, the number of rural tours made during the major holidays of Spring Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Labor Day, Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day rose by 162 percent year-on-year and nearly doubled compared with 2019, Trip.com Group reported.

Bookings made through the travel agency for village homestays last year were up 2.6 times on those for 2019, before the pandemic emerged, the report said.

The number of homestays on the agency's website has risen to 330,000, compared with 220,000 in 2019.

The agency reported that revenue from its 25-plus rural vacation resorts across the country has benefited local economies by more than 860 million yuan, adding that total revenue at these resorts grew by 269 percent compared with 2022.

The report said members of Generation Z — those born in the late 1990s or early 21st century — from first- and second-tier cities were the fastest-growing group for rural tourism consumption last year, rising by 164 percent over the previous year.


Food and drinks are served to visitors in a tent and at an outdoor table at a homestay in Suzhou. LI BO/XINHUA

The relaxing rural environment offers an effective remedy for alleviating the anxiety and stress of young people in big cities, the report said.

The requirements of the younger generation have also helped diversify rural tourism activities such as hiking, camping, parent-child study tours, agricultural experiences, and photography.

More than 500 new rural tourism product categories emerged last year, data from Trip.com Group show.

Wang Wenqing, who is in her 50s and comes from Henan, has made regular visits to rural homestays in Linzhou in the north of the province to acquaint travelers with the button-knotting technique, a local traditional cultural heritage item.

In 2017, Wang opened her own art workshop, but struggled to make ends meet due to the cost of raw materials and labor.

The tourism boom in surrounding villages helped spread the news of her button-knotting work to travelers from outside the area.

"This was especially the case after the local government encouraged intangible cultural heritage items to be bought from homestays," she said.

Wang, who has received steady orders for her work, earns about 10,000 yuan a month, providing her with the funds to invest in button-knotting creations.

Li Shenglong, an official at the culture, radio, television, and tourism bureau in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, said rural culture, including ancient architecture and intangible cultural heritage, is the "soul of rural tourism".

"Developing such tourism requires cultural empowerment, exploring the historical and cultural heritage of each village, and identifying core competitiveness," Li said.

"It is important to focus on cultural and creative planning, and provide quality tourism services to enhance the overall visitor experience."


Food and drinks are served to visitors in a tent and at an outdoor table at a homestay in Suzhou. LI BO/XINHUA

Dai Xuefeng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggested the development of rural tourism should be integrated with local production and lifestyles.

"For example, in Xinjiang, the development of rural tourism is combined with intangible cultural heritage, ethnic culture, and natural beauty, allowing visitors to explore the countryside while learning about the region's traditional culture," he said.

Dai proposed that greater convenience in land use, funding and financing be extended to help rural tourism development.

Liu Jiaming, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, said the modernization of rural areas is a major requirement for planning rural tourism, adding that tourism can play a significant role in achieving rural modernization.

"In China, rural areas share some similarities to a certain extent, because they were established under the guidance of traditional Chinese culture, and possess cultural attributes and patterns," Liu said.

He called on different regions to realize it is essential to maintain a unique identity and preserve local characteristics in developing rural tourism.

"Such tourism has entered a stage of high-level development, and it is essential to carry out top-level design," Liu said.

"Efforts should be directed toward the goal of creating rural vacation destinations, focusing on activities related to rural leisure and holidays, while integrating the concept of boutique homestays and luxury and eco-friendly vacations in rural areas."

(Web editor: Tian Yi, Liang Jun)


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