In China, Double-Edged Sword Of World Heritage Status

The Fujian Tulous, mysterious circular Chinese buildings, were named a World Heritage site in 2008. It has raised both investments and fears.

A uniquely functional beauty
A uniquely functional beauty
Han Yuting

YONGDING — The large and enclosed Tulous, the unique fortified circular earthen buildings clustering mainly in the mountainous areas of China's southeastern Fujian province, are indeed a vision to behold.

For too long, however, their cultural relevance was ignored. But that all began to change when they were inscribed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2008. The United Nations organization celebrated them as "exceptional examples of a building tradition and function," and have since attracted massive interest from researchers and tourists, both inside and outside of China.

"They are totally packed during these long holidays. Visitors just wait in line one after another to move further," said Lin Rigeng, a Yongding local celebrity better known as the "Tulou Prince". He owns the Zhenchenglou, one of the province’s finest Tulous that has been visited by many foreign dignitaries.

In 2013 alone, 4.3 million Chinese and foreign tourists visited Yongding County, a 7.2% increase from 2012. This brought in a tourism income of 3.18 billion RMB — about $511 million — which marked a 11.6% rise compared with the previous year. The local authorities may soon switch their economic model from coal mining to the tourism industry.

Everything changes

As it often happens, larger issues have come up. How will authorities balance the development of Yongding as a tourist destination with support for other local sources of livelihoods? Can commercial development and cultural preservation coexist?

Since listed as a World Heritage Site, seven of Hongkeng village's Tulous have been named "protected buildings" by the local government, and a folk-cultural area was developed around the site. The Yongding authorities have spent millions in what they call a tourist "Tulou golden corridor."

Mixing in with more modern structures — Photo: Wikimedia

It all started when a state-owned holding company, the Hakka Tulou Tourism Development Company, was set up. The company's idea was to develop this once poverty-ridden village, using a mixed management model that would combine both tourist attractions and urban communities — while allowing visitors to enjoy a "contemporary rural life."

The villagers were, at first, truly happy about the idea and the benefits tourism could bring. Yet the enchantment was soon over, and concerns started to grow. Building new houses was the first, most important issue. All the existing buildings that did not match the Tulous' architectural style were to be destroyed, while it was forbidden to build new houses in the village.

The local government promised to relocate villagers in replacement housing, but this pledge has yet to be honored. As young people got married and the housing demand rose, this became a larger issue.

"Many villagers working in cities hesitate to come home now, even during the Spring Festival holiday," said Lin Zhensheng, a local resident. "They have nowhere to stay, unless they pay to sleep in hotels or at other villagers' places."

Local officials say it is hard for them to acquire villagers' land for collective relocation. Meanwhile, villagers are voicing a growing distrust of the government, pointing out the fact that, while Tulous are leased as scenic spots, much of the land surrounding them was expropriated to build roads, hotels and other facilities for tourists.

Show me the money

Another tension between authorities and the villagers relates to the uneven distribution of the income brought in by local tourism. As one villager said, what local residents earn — a "dividend" that depends on ticket sales — is only a rather modest "nuisance fee", while, according to the legislation, villagers are entitled to receive a more lucrative "resource fee."

As hosts of the Tulous' scenic resources — and tourist resources themselves — villagers believe they can play an essential role in tourism development. Yet, they say, they don't get a fair share of the ticket sale revenue. Meanwhile, the Hakka Tulou Tourism Development Company, which represents the government's interests, claims that without its investment and advertising around the sites, the village would never attract so many visitors.

"Before the Tulous became a World Heritage site, villagers were full owners of these ancestral properties. But today, these sites have become the country's, and even the world's, common property," said the Yongding Office of Tourism Industry Development Committee. "Though residents still have property rights, they are no longer the masters of these touristic resources." >

Several conflicts have thus occurred between villagers and the tourism company. Many clashes, for instance, took place when villagers' relatives and friends came to the site as guests, and were stopped by security guards at its entrance.

Developing or preserving?

As the local government tries to make the Tulous sites a "strategic pillar industry," many commercial tourism projects were launched and are now in full swing. One of them is a "Dream Tulou," an old town built to become a movie base.

Some villagers claim the government is focusing all of its energy on tourism development, instead of protecting the province's architectural treasures. These sites have certainly suffered from the roads, public restrooms, hotels and other facilities that were built to accomodate tourists.

Plus, if we look at the Hongkeng village, only seven of its Tulous were named "cultural relics" and are thus maintained by the government. What happens to the other ones? As villagers have left these old dwellings, there is a clear lack of motivation to repair these houses. This greatly impacts the global image of these ancient villages.

A Tulous tourism company executive, also a native of the area, admitted that the site management system has some flaws. This, on the long run, could lead to an impeded protection and development of the site.

It is indeed the state-owned tourism company, a non-administrative body, that takes care of the investments and commercial development of the Tulous, while the Yongding Office of Tourism Industry Development Committee, and the Yongding Tourism Office, are the two agencies that coordinate and manage local tourism.

How do we coordinate these competing agencies' functions and realize the Tulous' full touristic potential? How do we preserve the sites themselves, while maintaining the villagers' livelihood? It's a lesson that becoming a World Heritage Site is only the beginning.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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