At the end of last year, when the smiling face of a Tibetan shepherd from Litang appeared all over the internet, his home village prepared for an influx of tourists that never came.
Photo from CFP
By XIE Yixin
It was the end of 2020 when the smiling face of Tamdrin, or better known as Ding Zhen, his name in Mandarin, lit up screens nationwide. The 20-year-old Tibetan herdsman’s smile accumulated billions of clicks for a promotional tourism video featuring the delights of Litang, an unspoiled mountain village in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province.
The windswept steppe, at over 4,000 meters, is a land where melted glacial waters converge into rivers, and the pure blue lakes reflect a pure blue sky.
For Litang’s bureau of culture and tourism, a billion clicks led to a billion yuan. Year-to-date realized revenue from tourism stands at 1.8 billion yuan (US$280 million). Inbound visitors increase to 1.6 million.
Garze became an aspirational destination for many and has pretty much stayed that way since: aspirational. Against all auspices and expectations, and despite some numbers which seem pleasingly large, tourism in Litang’s has grown by just over 6 percent since the unexpected idol took his turn on the gala circuit.
DU Dong, Ding Zhen’s former boss, told Jiemian News that, despite the beautiful snowscapes and icy mountain vistas, Litang is far from a winter destination. The high season is summer and autumn.
Unfortunately, there were sporadic outbursts of COVID-19 this summer and autumn. “The pause button was pressed across the whole of Sichuan,” Ding said.
A’Lang of Litang’s media center, also blames the pandemic. “Local policies are strict. People’s safety is the priority,” she said.
COVID might be getting the bulk of the blame, but the only way into Litang is a 600km road from Chengdu. There is no rail or air service and plenty of parts of the road are pretty hairy for drivers or vehicles unaccustomed to driving in China’s wilderness. All roads also climb 4,014 meters, scaring away tourists who were afraid of altitude sickness.
A’Lang thinks the disappointment this year could be a blessing in disguise. “The pandemic brought a lot of challenges. We certainly didn’t get everything right and this is a good time to reflect. We were already working hard to bring in more visitors. Tamdrin’s brief fame was certainly not part of our long-term plan, though it was a pleasing bonus. His smile, pleasing as it is, cannot sustain an entire industry.”
He also knows that had visitors swarmed into Litang as some expected, they would have been more than disappointed. The small town is nowhere near ready to accommodate them. Much of Litang’s charm is derived from its remoteness, but the focus of efforts has been mainly on local culture. A cluster of 1,000 traditional Tibetan homes, dotted with micro museums, includes a temple to the 17th-century lama Tsangyang Gyatso, Kham fashion Museum, and an Incense and Medicine Museum. There is also Tibetan Opera.
Litang plans to have up to 50 micro museums within 5 years. And some progress has been made. The village has begun organizing the local craft and charity organizations to manage exhibits and a group of museums is taking shape. The central axis of the town connects museums dedicated to the Voice of Himalaya and Tibetan Opera, with Choekhorling Monastery and Renkang Mansion.
Renkang Mansion, home of the seventh Dalai Lama, has a new museum celebrating the Renkang family alongside an old one. “The old museum reflects on the history and the new museum offers a glimpse of the future,” said A’Lang.
Another visible change is that there are more hotels and homestays. A total of 130 hotels and motels are now providing more than 8,000 beds, a rise of 76 percent. There are nine country inns and 50 rural homestays. The precipitous 318 National Road, current primary access to Litang will soon be joined by a highspeed rail link.
A’Lang has noticed outsiders coming to live and start businesses in Litang, drawn by Tamdrin’s fame. The most important aspect of Tamdrin’s flirtation with celebrity was not the attention he caught from adoring fans, but that of private capital, according to Du.
“More publicity means more visits, more visits bring hope to local people,” he said. "Investing in Litang is not expensive at all."
Tamdrin may be yesterday’s news, but a new influencer, this time far from accidental, is emerging. LIU Hong, head of tourism in Garze has popped up online schmoozing about the local tourism industry. He is certainly blasting a welcoming bugle for the “Hometown of Ding Zhen.”
Litang has 200 historic relics and natural sites that are assured worth seeing - Kaniang village and Jambhala flower sea starry room not least among them.
“We certainly will always make the most of natural beauty, with or without Ding Zhen,” said A’Lang.