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How Internet Plus Tourism Spreads Rural Tibet's Wings
Tibet has taken on a new outlook thanks to improved infrastructure
By Li Nan | Web Exclusive
Phuntsok, a family inn owner in Nyingchi, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, promotes his inn by live streaming on June 8, 2017 (ZHAO FEI)
Phuntsok, a 70-year-old family inn owner in Nyingchi City, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, is remarkably web savvy. On his business card, there is a QR code for tourists to scan to see the virtual reality (VR) panorama of his guesthouse in Tashi Gang Village, Lhulang Town.

"Many tourists decide to stay at my inn when they see the VR presentation," he said proudly. The veteran-turned-entrepreneur was the first Tibetan to offer accommodations to tourists in Lhulang starting in 1998.

Along with VR, Phuntsok also promotes his guesthouse on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and WeChat, China's most popular messaging app; and through live streaming. He has more than 1,780 contacts on his WeChat account, most of whom were previous guests. Whenever a newcomer asks him about the specific location of the inn, the elderly man expertly shares his position through his cellphone, guiding guests with the help of cyber maps.

Things were different when Phuntsok first started his business. Having not attended school, he had no idea how to use the Internet to promote his homestay. But since 2016, with the help of the local government, free Wi-Fi has been available in rural Nyingchi. A specialized online platform for promoting the city's tourism was also established in the same year and a free training course on how to use online marketing was offered to family hotel owners. This was grist to the mill for Phuntsok, who ran with these promotional tools.

Now, Phuntsok's guesthouse has become one of the most popular inns in Nyingchi. Celebrities and backpackers queue for a room in advance of the peak season. In 2017, he received nearly 7,000 guests, a surge of 133 percent in two years, with a yearly income of 350,000 yuan ($55,840).
"I could never enjoy my good life today without the good policies," Phuntsok said, referring to the local government's commitment in recent years to pulling herdsmen and farmers out of poverty with Internet Plus tourism.

Tibet aims to become an international tourist destination and an all-in-one tourism demonstration zone in China. In May 2015, it rolled out a plan to build 20 distinctive towns with complete Internet infrastructure and digital public service platforms, including Phuntsok's hometown of Lhulang.

Located along National Highway 318, Lhulang town is known as China's most beautiful passage linking Sichuan Province and Tibet and has long been a tourist stop. Local residents have always offered accommodations or sold native products to tourists. But there was never a specialized online platform to connect tourists with guesthouse owners.

"On the one hand, many tourists wanted to experience the traditional rural Tibetan lifestyle, but few knew where to go before 2016. On the other hand, farmers-turned-homestay managers knew little about marketing and promotion," Tanzin Samdrup, head of the Nyingchi Tourism Development Commission (NTDC) told Beijing Review.

The changes began in 2016, when the town was renovated with 3.8 billion yuan ($601 million) of investment from China's southern Guangdong Province. A paved road network was built to make scattered villages more connected and accessible. Public infrastructure, such as a water supply station, a garbage transfer station and a sewage treatment plant were erected. Villages were cleaned up and old guesthouses renovated. Up to 90 percent of the town was covered by a mobile communication network. The once simple town was transformed into an international tourist destination with a traditional Tibetan atmosphere.

Since its trial run in 2016, Lhulang town has received over 300,000 tourists, creating many great business opportunities and generating 1,000 local jobs.

Besides the offline facelift, the Nyingchi government teamed up with a private enterprise to digitalize its rural tourism system. An online platform called Nyingchi Smart Tourism (NST) was established, offering tourists specific information about Nyingchi's resorts, restaurants, hotels, travel agencies, dynamic tourist flows, traffic reports and weather forecasts. With a simple click, tourists can now easily find out where to go, where to eat and where to sleep in the region, even when they are in remote highland pastures.

"In the past, when guests came to my inn, I had to pick each of them up. Thanks to the well-developed Internet, tourists now book rooms online and come to my house by themselves with the help of online maps," said Phuntsok.

What's more, an online marketplace called 7782, sells local products such as dry yat meat, mushrooms and Tibetan herbal medicine. This enables local farmers and herdsmen to sell their products to buyers online.

To encourage more local residents to promote their family hotels and products online, staff from the Nyingchi Smart Tourism Development Co. Ltd. (NSTD) went door to door teaching farmers how to use the platform and provided them with free tablet computers.

Data from the NTDC shows that after the platform was launched, the number of guesthouses in Nyingchi went up from 308 to 570, increasing by 85 percent. According to Qin Lei, NSTD General Manager, the platform has amassed over 3 million registered users, generating a turnover of 14 million yuan ($2.23 million) in less than two years.

"Local residents can now receive orders without stepping out of their doors," said Tanzin Samdrup. "And tourists can enjoy a cashless trip across Nyingchi with a cellphone."

Nyingchi residents are not the only beneficiaries of the information highway in Tibet. In the past five years, the autonomous region has grown into the first ethnic region in China where all towns are covered by the Passive Optical Network (PON). To date, PON is accessible to 2,055 villages, or 40 percent of the region's rural areas.

Selling farm produce online has become a common practice in rural Tibet. By February, 14 counties in Tibet were named national level e-commerce demonstration counties, including Tsole County in Ngari Prefecture, a remote county with an average altitude of 4,700 meters. Abounding in farm produce and cashmere products, Tsole failed to find a market as a result of poor telecommunications in the past. When it got access to broadband in 2015, however, it established an e-commerce association and opened online and offline stores to engage villagers in e-commerce. In the first six months, over 120 farmers and herdsmen from 21 villages took part, bringing each of them an additional income of nearly 1,000 yuan ($159.37) per month.

"Nowadays, Tibet has taken on a new outlook. Modern infrastructure is improving and mobile payment is feasible even in border hamlets," said Qizhala, Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, on March 27.
Challenges

But the Internet Plus tourism on the roof of the world is not without some obstacles, with lack of talent posing a major problem. "Tibet's high attitude puts some talent off. We are badly in need of Internet technicians," said Qin.

Incubation centers, including the Lhulang Startup Center, were launched to lure talent to Tibet. Opened in June 2016, the center aims to be both an incubation center and a brain bank. To date, a dozen enterprises have rooted themselves at the center. New entrepreneurs are given rent subsidies, accommodations and tax breaks. Attractive internship programs connected to five universities are offered to college students."We rack our brains on how to retain hi-tech talent in Tibet, hoping that they will help enrich Tibet's brain bank," said Qin.

In the past year, the regional government made great efforts to amass talent, with a total of 105 PhD graduates settling in Tibet, outpacing most other provinces and autonomous regions.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to linan@bjreview.com

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