Singing folk songs with villages, marching in dragon dances and cheering on buffalo fights were all part of an enamoured traveller’s three-week tour of Chinese ethnic minority festivals.
The man – who flew across China to southwestern Guizhou province to see the colourful traditions – represents both the benefits and downsides of ethnic minority tourism.
“Their culture is a bit more backward, but it’s because it’s backward that they have this simplicity,” said the traveller, surnamed He, as he recounted local customs and complimented Miao women in embroidered outfits and towering silver headdresses.
Visitors such as him are fuelling a domestic Chinese tourism boom that is bringing money to poorer ethnic minority regions and propping up their fading traditions, but that can also encourage commercialism and stereotyping.
He, in his 40s and from northern China, acknowledged that a flood of tourism in other minority areas had doused their authentic feel.
“For those of us who have come to Guizhou early on, and experienced its simplicity, I really don’t know if these traditional ways will exist a few years from now,” he said.
A third of residents of Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces, are members of one or other of the country’s 55 recognised ethnic minorities, and He was watching a major Miao festival in the township of Zhouxi.
Domestic tourism expanded by 10 per cent last year, with Chinese logging 3.3 billion trips within their country, generating 2.6 trillion yuan ($A446 billion).
China, although 92 per cent ethnic Han, offers minorities preferential policies and encourages them to appear in TV performances and political events in traditional dress.
In past decades, minorities suffered heavily from the Communist imposition of collective farming and the chaos of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, but it is now seeking to tap its ethnic riches – its income from tourism rose by 30 per cent in 2012 to 186 billion yuan, just over a quarter of its economy.
The visitors bring benefits such as better roads and a chance to make money, says Jenny Chio, an anthropologist at Emory University in the United States, who has researched tourism in Guizhou.
But they can also turn quiet villages into crowded theme parks, and pressure locals to conform to stereotypes.
“If a place becomes a tourism destination, the people who live there are kind of frozen in time” to maintain the “fantasy bubble that tourists want to see”, said Chio.
Reza Hasmath, an expert on ethnicity in China at England’s Oxford University, says minorities need to be seen as educated and modern to truly reap economic rewards.
“We need to get to that stage to suggest that minorities can be very accomplished individuals, that they are hard working, that they are skilled, that they should be employed,” he says.
Residents of Zhouxi, which built a plaza for festival shows a few years ago, say the influx of tourists is improving ties between ethnic groups.
A mural on the road to the township shows cartoon versions of Guizhou’s ethnic traditions – men beating drums and fighting buffaloes.
“It’s good to let other Chinese friends get to know our culture,” said Ceng Mingwu, 21, a Zhouxi native and Miao dancer.
“Our economy has developed, and we’re getting a bit of publicity.”
But resident Wang Zejun, 46, is worried Zhouxi could fall into the same commercial tailspin as a nearby village, Xijiang.
In just five years, prices in Xijiang have shot up and performers are now hired professionals from outside, with locals able to find jobs only as cleaners, he says.
“The food is expensive and fake, and there’s nothing good there,” he says.