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Too much flower fest frenzy and tacky tourism pop-ups
2013-04-30
By Doug Young

IT seems slightly strange to be writing this week on something as frivolous as flower festivals when Shanghai is at the heart of what could become a major outbreak of H7N9 bird flu with the potential to go global. But that said, many readers may welcome such a diversion to the daily reports on all the latest cases, alongside related reports about the closure of live bird markets and other affected businesses.

In fact, one could even argue that my chosen topic this week, looking at the explosion of flower festivals in and around Shanghai, isn't completely unrelated to this ongoing bird flu outbreak. That's because these flowery festivals reflect the imminent arrival of spring, when warmer weather is expected to draw a line under the current outbreak of H7N9 cases once and for all with the end of the current cold and flu season.

Anyone living in Shanghai would have to be blind or looking at the ground all the time not to notice the abundance of trees and shrubs starting to bloom all around the city. A wide range of flowers from pink and purple peach and cherry blossoms to yellow rapeseed flowers are now filling the landscape at the city's parks and other green spaces, providing a welcome sight for winter weary residents like myself.

But this year's blossoming is being accompanied by a concurrent explosion of flower festivals in and around the city, building on a trend that seems to have begun over the last five years. Many of these festivals caught my attention through their widespread media coverage, and I even considered going to check out the Luxun Park cherry blossom festival one weekend since it's quite close to my home in Hongkou District.

But I soon get tired of the constant barrage of reports, which all started to seem the same, all accompanied by photos bursting with flowers from the latest festival to join the parade.

The frenzy reached a climax for me with a report in the Oriental Morning Post. In addition to describing the phenomenon, the report featured a somewhat surreal photo of six musicians playing classical Chinese instruments in a sea of yellow rapeseed flowers in suburban Fengxian District.

The report looks more closely at three of the oldest and most famous festivals, including the Fengxian rapeseed event, a cherry blossom festival at suburban Gucun Park and a peach blossom festival in Pudong. The Chinese article found that attendance at all three festivals was down from previous years, which shouldn't come as a huge surprise to anyone due to the increasing competition from so many imitators.

In many ways, Shanghai's flower festival explosion mirrors the much bigger copycat phenomenon that seems pervasive throughout China. That phenomenon often sees companies, governments and entrepreneurs pile into popular new industries, resulting in a series of boom-bust cycles for diverse products and services ranging from TVs and cars in previous years to online group buying and solar cell manufacturing more recently.

Bloom or bust

Now it appears the trend has spread to flower festivals, in a bid to commercialize what was traditionally a very pleasant pastime and rite of spring. This latest flower frenzy is probably part of a broader boom in China's tourist industry, which has everyone trying to commercialize anything with even the slightly potential appeal as a tourist attraction.

On one hand, such a drive is certainly a welcome change from the past when there was little to do in and around Shanghai on weekends besides eating and shopping. On the other hand this unruly explosion of flower festivals and other tourist attractions is also quickly becoming a blight, since many of the smaller events are poorly planned and operated, and may even end up cheating visitors.

If Shanghai wants to lead the way for the rest of China, it should make an effort to license and coordinate not only the numerous flower festivals that have burst on the scene, but also the many tourist attractions that have popped up in recent years. Otherwise, the result could be an ugly landscape cluttered with poor quality offerings, hampering the city's effort to become a world-class tourist destination.

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