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City aims to turn industrial sites into tourism hotspots
2013-05-20
By Doug Young

I HAVE to commend China's tourism sector for its innovative spirit, even if I don't always agree with all of its ideas. That spirit has seen public and private entities become especially adept at "tourifying" nearly everything imaginable, from parks to entire historic towns. But Shanghai's latest campaign to create tourist sites out of some of its most famous factories surprised even me, though it also brought a smile to my face due to its sheer strangeness.

In some ways, this latest campaign seems particularly well suited to China, and it's all the more appropriate that the initiative is coming from the country's commercial capital. After all, China is often called the workshop to the world, so it seems only proper that its leading factories should share some of the glory alongside more familiar landmarks like the Great Wall and Forbidden City.

This new program also looks like a shrewd one for Shanghai, which has a rich commercial history but whose lack of historical sites means its tourism sector has traditionally lagged older cities like Beijing and Xi'an.

The new campaign, launched last week, will allow individual tourists to visit 20 famous industrial sites. Many of these have been open in the past to tour groups that booked in advance, but the new program will let individuals itching to see some of Shanghai's industrial hotspots sign up without joining a formal group. They will be assembled into ad hoc groups of 15 or more.

As a former company news reporter, I'm actually well acquainted with quite a few sites in the program and might even check out one or more. The list starts with one of the city's industrial titans, Baoshan Iron and Steel, formerly China's biggest steel producer and a pride of the nation's industry for decades. Baosteel is followed by SAIC, the country's leading carmaker whose foreign joint venture partners include Volkswagen and General Motors.

While I personally might find these factory tours interesting due to my background, I do wonder how many others will choose to visit these places over more traditional sites like the Bund, Yu Yuan Garden and historic neighborhoods filled with Art Deco buildings and shikumen (stone-gated) homes.

In fact, this concept of industrial tourism isn't really new and has a very spotty history in China over the last 30 years. Before becoming a journalist, I spent a brief period as a tour guide bringing Americans to China in the early 1990s and got to experience the phenomenon in one of its earliest forms. During our trips, our local tour guides would often take us to factories where we would learn about the production process for a wide range of products, covering everything from tea to silk and carpets. Every tour was slightly different, but they all shared one common element: a final stop at a souvenir shop.

Perhaps I was a bit na?ve at first, as I thought these factory tours were interesting and informative enough for my groups of American tourists, most of them seeing China for the first time. But I quickly learned that these stops were organized more for the benefit of the local tour guides, who received kickbacks for bringing in these captive tour groups. Thus, tour guides often gave little or no thought to the tourists when selecting which factories to visit, and instead focused on who gave them the biggest commissions.

Unchecked spirit

This inherent conflict resulted in numerous arguments between myself and my tour guides, and in many ways reflects the unchecked commercial spirit that has developed in China's rapid economic modernization. That spirit has evolved to the point where it's now nearly impossible to avoid being inundated by photo takers and souvenir sellers at any possible scenic spot, and where ticket prices for many popular venues have skyrocketed to levels above those in the West.

This latest industrial tourism program won't officially launch until the end of this month, so I can't comment specifically on what we can expect to see. But I suspect they will all include a final stop at a gift shop, where perhaps visitors can conveniently purchase a galvanized steel statuette of Chairman Mao, or perhaps some model automobiles of popular SAIC cars.

At the end of the day the market will determine if this program succeeds, since tours will probably end up on the rubbish heap of failed Chinese tourism experiments. But I personally do find this idea of industrial tourism intriguing, and hope Shanghai can find a way to make the program instructive and interesting for visitors, even if trips ultimately include the mandatory final stop at a souvenir shop.

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