Dali guesthouse owners furious after being forced to shut down their business

â—‹ The local government launched a campaign over concerns that Lake Erhai was polluted

â—‹ Business owners insist that they have followed all instructions from authorities to upgrade wastewater treatment systems

â—‹ The local population divided on the effects of the repression on the tourism industry

An elderly Bai woman watches bulldozers destroy her property in Dali, southwest China’s Yunnan Province, January 22. Photo: Cui Meng / GT

When bulldozers demolished the walls of his guesthouse in Dali, southwest China’s Yunnan Province, in December, Liu Zaixin (pseudonym), 39, felt that an era was over .

In 2012, the former computer engineer at Huawei headquarters in Shenzhen quit his job, moved to Yunnan with his wife and child, and invested 5 million yuan ($ 741,500) to build a guest house overlooking Erhai Lake.

For Liu, who was fed up with city life, it was a dream come true. Erhai, literally “ear-shaped sea”, is a crystal clear lake northwest of the ancient city of Dali. For many people, the lake is the Chinese equivalent of Walden Pond, with stunning natural views that provide a romantic escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Between 2012 and 2015, many middle class investors, attracted by the exquisite scenery of the lake, quit their jobs in the big cities, settled in Erhai, and entered the guesthouse business by renting land. by the lake to local farmers and building their own guesthouses. Unlike hotels, Dali guesthouses have attracted tourists with their unique architectural style and interior design, friendly service, and stunning lake views. Prices for guesthouses ranged from 300 yuan to over 2,000 yuan per night, depending on the facility.

But since last October, due to a massive campaign by the Dali government to protect Lake Erhai from pollution, more than 1,800 lakeside homes, including 540 guesthouses, have been demolished.

Walking along Erhai Lake today, many villages appear to have been hit by a massive earthquake. Houses were collapsed into piles of rubble and junk. The last walls and standing structures are painted with the red Chinese character “chai”, literally “to be demolished”.

A worker removes construction debris from a recently demolished lakeside guesthouse in Dali. Photo: Cui Meng / GT

Environmental concerns

Lake Erhai has a fragile ecosystem. According to a report by the Xinhua News Agency, in 1996, 2003 and 2013, three large outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae occurred in Erhai Lake. The number of pollutants in the lake in 2016 increased by 50% compared to 2004.

“Yunnan’s abundance of sunshine and relatively high temperatures mean that Erhai is particularly susceptible to toxic blue-green algae blooms,” said Wang Shengrui, member of the Erhai Lake Protection Expert Committee and professor. at the College of Water Sciences, Peking Normal University. World time.

The decline in water quality has alarmed central and local authorities. In January 2015, during an inspection tour of Yunnan, President Xi Jinping visited a village near Erhai Lake and called on residents and the local government to protect this piece of natural beauty, pointing out that it is ‘is a’ long-term task [and] the work is far from over, ”Xinhua said.

In 2016, an environmental inspection team pointed out that Erhai tourism was not under control and the water quality in Erhai had deteriorated.

The local government fears that Lake Erhai could be overwhelmed by the influx of tourists, in part bought by guest houses. “At the end of 2016, there were more than 580 guesthouses and restaurants that attracted 3.2 million tourists a year to the central one-square-kilometer area of ​​Shuanglang County,” said Lou Zenghui, chef. from Shuanglang County Party in an interview with Xinhua.

According to the report, the maximum population size that the Erhai environment can support is 500,000. But from 2014 to 2016, the number of tourists was 9.18 million, 10.3 million and 15 million, far exceeding what he can take. On May 30, 2018, he launched a plan to demolish 1,806 lakeside homes to make way for 955 acres of wetlands and buffer zones.

Sewer system upgrades

Bed and breakfast owners, however, find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that their guesthouses have to be demolished for environmental reasons. Since 2015, many of them have reorganized their sewage treatment system several times according to the requirements of the local government.

Guo Qiang was a former official who worked for the Beijing Water Resources Authority. He resigned and left Beijing in 2013 when the smog was at its worst and ran a guesthouse in Dali.

“Initially, we had a three-chamber septic tank connected to the village sewer line. We upgraded it to five and seven chambers in 2015 and 2016 according to government requirements, and in early 2017, we invested over 100,000 yuan to manufacture our own sewage treatment system, ”Guo told the Global Times.

Guo said the guest house’s wastewater, after being treated in the sewage system, was used to water the flowers. The remaining wastewater would be transported by truck to the village wastewater treatment plant. “Not a drop of water has been poured into Erhai Lake,” he said.

However, just after many guesthouses installed the sewage treatment system, in April 2017, Dali’s government ordered the closure of more than 2,400 guesthouses and restaurants near the lake. According to a Dali government opinion, the guesthouses could resume operations after June 2018, when the construction of a sewer line around the lake is completed.

Despite huge financial losses, many guest houses followed the order. In April 2018, however, as many guesthouses waited for the green light to reopen, Dali’s government released a new document stating that all properties within 15 meters of the lake boundary, called the ” blue line “, should be demolished. . The sudden new policy infuriated many guest house operators.

“We followed the government’s requirements to modernize the sewage system. We obeyed the government when it asked us to shut down for over a year. But when the government asked us to demolish in April, I was speechless, ”Guo said.

Dali’s government did not respond to the Global Times’ request for an interview. But Gao Zhihong, Dali’s Party secretary, admitted in an interview with CCTV’s News Probe in June that government planning and approval had not kept up with the rapid growth of guest houses. But he stressed that protecting the environment should be the priority. “The quality of Erhai’s water is changing very quickly. A little easing of the measures and the water quality will deteriorate,” Gao said in the program.

Wang Shengrui, the water expert, said Erhai’s ecosystem is not just about water. “If water is the heart of a lake, its coastline and waterfront are like its arms that make up its ecosystem. I think buildings should be demolished to make way for wetlands to restore the ecosystem of the lake. Erhai Lake, ”he said.

Pay the price

According to statistics from the Dali government, the city’s tourism income stood at 26.4 billion yuan in 2017, 70% of its annual GDP. For a city where tourism is the dominant industry, environmental repression has also resulted in heavy losses in its economy.

Wu Haijun, a former computer engineer in Beijing, opened a guesthouse in Shuanglang County in 2014, one of the few lakeside guesthouses that escaped demolition because it was located in outside the “blue line”. Despite this, nearly two years of forced closure of guesthouses and heavy construction in Shuanglang have scared tourists away and devastated tourism activity.

It closely tracks hotel occupancy statistics on ctrip.com, an online travel agency, every day. “Business is far from resuming. Before the campaign, the occupancy rate of hotels in Shuanglang on ctrip.com was over 65%. Now that rate is below 16%,” he said. to the Global Times.

Locals have mixed opinions on environmental repression. A resident who rented motorcycles from tourists said her business also declined sharply after the guesthouses closed. However, some supported the movement.

“After all, Erhai Lake is Dali’s largest capital. If it is polluted, Dali’s tourism industry will also be destroyed. We should see things in the long term,” a taxi driver told Global Times. named after Zhang.

Wu believes that the positive contribution of guesthouses to the local economy should not be ignored. “Previously, there were more than 300 guesthouses in Shuanglang County. If each were built with an investment of 5 million yuan, it would represent a total investment of 15 billion yuan. ‘is a great contribution, ”he said. noted.

With their main source of income suppressed, many of these guesthouse operators are now heavily in debt, and some are suing Dali’s government for more compensation and an illegitimate demolition process.

In response, Dali’s government has hired a real estate appraisal company and will compensate each guesthouse based on its size. But many guest house operators feel the sum cannot make up for the losses they have suffered. They are also not happy with the way the government has dealt with the whole issue.

“I am really disappointed. We have invested a tremendous amount of time and money here. We quit our jobs in the computer industry in Shenzhen. Now, even though I want to go back to IT, I can’t, after been away all these years, “Liu told the Global Times. He now has over a million yuan in debt. Along with 20 other hotel owners, Liu filed lawsuits against Dali’s government.

Guo returned to Beijing and now works in an environmental company. He still has to pay more than 500,000 yuan in loans taken out to build the guesthouse. But for him, it’s the emotional pain that hurts much more.

“Hotel owners treat their hotels either like pigs, which they sell after getting fat, or like children, into which they pour their feelings. In Dali, most owners treat their guesthouses like children. It is not something that can be compensated with money when they are destroyed, ”he said.

Journal Title: Lamentation by the Lake

About Michael B. Billingsley

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