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As Chinese turn tourist, some visit an unfamiliar land: their own country

understanding others

Increasingly curious about places that are off the beaten path in their own vast nation, the Chinese are using digital tools to book visits with domestic farmers and other villagers that, until now, have rarely benefited from China’s booming tourist economy.

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    Cheng Jingye shops for produce at the Dali farmers market in southwest China's Yunnan Province in July. Ms. Cheng, a former hotel maid, has carved out a new career taking tourists on shopping and cooking expeditions. She carries the produce she buys in a traditional backpack basket used by many of Yunnan's Bai people, the province's largest minority ethnic group.
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Nearly every day, this city’s Renmin Lu (People’s Street) is clogged with its namesake – renmin posing for selfies; renmin buying schlocky souvenirs; renmin drinking at a steampunk-themed bar called the Bad Monkey.

When Gao Jing and her family visited this ancient walled city in southwest China's Yunnan Province in July, she was determined to seek out a more authentic experience. Along with her husband and 5-year-old son, Ms. Gao wanted to see some of the province’s stunning scenery, learn more about its many ethnic groups, and sample the cuisine that has made Yunnan a food destination.

“We didn’t want to have lunch and dinner every day in a restaurant,” said Gao, who works at a German-owned finance company in Shanghai. “We wanted something different.”

Fortunately for Gao and other travelers here, they now have options beyond the organized bus junkets that once dominated Chinese tourism. Travel companies are developing new mobile apps and websites that allow people to book visits with farmers and other villagers that, until now, have rarely benefited from China’s booming tourist economy. While these digital tools are still a niche alternative for China’s hundreds of millions of travelers, they are growing in popularity – a reflection of how some of the country’s urban dwellers long to reconnect with their rural roots.

In Gao’s case, she used a new Chinese travel app called NewUGo – a play on the Chinese word for "avocado" – to book a visit to a mountain village above Dali. There, she and her family sampled homemade chicken soup and joined villagers on a mushroom-foraging trip. On another day, they booked a lunch outing with Dali cook, Cheng Jingye, which included a shopping excursion to the Dali farmers market and then a meal at the Cheng family’s home.

“Oh, the food was so good,” Gao swooned. “When I got back, I recommended it to my friends.”

Increasingly affluent and curious about their country and the world, China is becoming a nation of sightseers. Roughly 120 million Chinese traveled abroad in 2015, compared to 40 million in 2007, according to the National Tourism Administration.

Most of China’s domestic travel takes place during the Chinese New Year, when a tidal wave of humanity crowds into trains and planes to return to their home towns. But many Chinese are choosing to travel within the country at times other than during the stressful holidays. Road trips are increasingly popular as China expands its highway network. Between 2014 and 2015, the market size of China’s independent travelers increased 16.7 percent, according to a recent joint report by the China Tourism Academy and Mafengwo, a Chinese travel site.

From maid to food ambassador

Dali is one marque destination. Set on the shore of Lake Erhai and at the base of the misty Cang mountains, Dali is temperate year-round. Over the past decade, Chinese tourists have crowded out the foreigners who once made this a backpacker mecca. Total tourism revenue has doubled the last five years, the city estimates, with Dali receiving 112 million separate visits in 2015.

Like many native sons and daughters, Cheng Jingye long eked out a living here cleaning hotel rooms and doing other menial work. That changed late last year. A self-taught cook, Ms. Cheng has staked out a new career as a food ambassador for her people, the Bai minority of Yunnan.

Two or three times a week, Cheng leads tourists – Chinese and foreigners – on food shopping and cooking trips. Cheng seems astounded that people would actually hire her for such a gig, but said she welcomes the modest rewards that have come with it.

“It used to be that my family could only buy clothes once a year, right before the Spring Festival [Chinese New Year],” said Cheng. “Now we have enough to go shopping whenever we want.”

Cheng’s new endeavor was launched with the help of a tourism entrepreneur, Zhang Mei, founder and CEO of WildChina, a Beijing-based travel service. Ms. Zhang, a graduate of Harvard Business School and a Yunnan native, founded WildChina 16 years ago, creating tailor-made itineraries for adventurous Chinese and expats. In recent years, however, she found that many of her potential clients were traveling independently but still interested in unique experiences.

Last December, Zhang and a business partner, Leo Li, launched NewUGo to serve this market. Part of their motivation, said Zhang, was to connect independent travelers with rural artisans, chefs, and farmers who often are bypassed by the tourist economy.

Cheng Jingye was one of those. A single mother, Ms. Cheng lost her husband to illness when their son, now grown and married, was just a young boy. She raised him by cleaning hotel rooms until four years ago. That’s when she met Zhang, who hired her as an ayi – a domestic helper – for her vacation home in Dali.

Zhang quickly learned that Cheng could not only cook for people but could captivate them with her folksy, infectious personality. That combination has proven to be marketable.

“One reason I started NewUGo was to showcase people like Cheng Ayi,” said Zhang. “I felt like this was the kind of experience people would die for.”

Out on the farm

On a recent summer day in Dali, a Monitor correspondent joined Cheng on a visit to the city’s farmers market. While there, the Bai chef closely examined the wide array of produce, haggled with vendors and ended up purchasing wild mushrooms, Yunnan ham, an entire fish, potatoes, eggplant, and other vegetables.

Cheng piled all these provisions into a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi for the ride out to her farm house. It sits 15 minutes outside of the city center, surrounded by verdant orchards and vegetable fields interspersed with wild marijuana plants.

Yunnan is a province of exotic sights and fragrances, and in the courtyard of Cheng’s modest home, the scents of wild plums, flowers, chickens, and charcoal linger in the air. After unpacking, Cheng started preparing her signature dish, an unusual mix of rice, potatoes, and chunks of Yunnan ham, cooked in an iron pot directly over the glowing embers of a wood fire.

It costs less than 200 yuan – or about $30 – for four people to join Cheng in shopping, cooking, and eating, not including the cost of transportation and groceries. There’s some labor involved – frying wild mushrooms in a hot wok, for instance – but also some freebies. 

Over dinner, Cheng was asked how mass tourism has changed her hometown. She quickly complained about the traffic congestion and the garbage that gets strewn around. But overall, she said, “It is good that tourism is bringing in new income.”

New experiences

NewUGo, currently only in Chinese, offers more than 400 “experiences” for people exploring Yunnan and 13 other provinces in China. People can book a visit with a mountain folk song singer, a farmer that makes Yunnan cheese from scratch, or a chef that collects honey from the hillsides, among other choices.

And NewUGo is hardly alone in chasing this market. On Feekr, Chinese-speaking tourists can book pottery or fabric-dying classes. banmi.com and wanzi.cc help independent travelers find special experiences on the road.

Zhang says she doesn’t expect to make money from NewUGo but sees it as one way to enrich people’s live in her home province, and broaden the horizons of travelers.

“Travel is changing in China – in a good way,” she said. “People how want to invest more time in a single destination, instead of rushing from site to site. They are looking for experiences off the beaten track.”

Qiang Xiaoji contributed to this report.

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