Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2018, 09:04 GMT

Xinjiang, China: Ethnic Kazakhs to ponder future amid tourism boom

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Joanna Lillis
Publication Date 5 October 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Xinjiang, China: Ethnic Kazakhs to ponder future amid tourism boom, 5 October 2007, available at: [accessed 23 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Joanna Lillis: 10/05/07

The Chinese province of Xinjiang is often in the news, with most media reports examining the independence aspirations of its Uighur population, as well as the Go West policy of populating the region with Han Chinese. There is another, less reported story in Xinjiang – the erosion of ethnic Kazakh culture.

Chinese rule and an influx of people from other parts of the country have forced lifestyle changes upon Xinjiang's Kazakhs, who have for centuries lived a nomadic existence. The jewel of Xinjiang's Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture is Kanas, a crescent-shaped glacial lake tucked into mountains not far from the point where the borders of China, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan converge. The lake is surrounded by thick taiga, giving way to sweeping meadows. Rich in resources and with abundant water supplies, it is a prime area for the livestock breeding that sustains nomadic families.

This natural beauty now threatens the nomadic way of life, as tourists have begun flocking to Lake Kanas. Paved roads now reach the lake and beyond, running alongside tracks used by nomads to move between winter and summer pastures. Yurts – the round, felt tents in which the nomads live – are flanked by luxurious hotels painted in garish orange and yellow hues, conspicuous against the deep green taiga.

Ethnic Kazakhs living inside the Kanas national park – created to promote tourism and protect the environment – say they are being displaced by development. "Pressure is increasing with every year," Kayrat, a nomad whose name has been changed, told EurasiaNet. "We have to move out of here."

Locals say that Chinese officials have frequently ordered nomads to move to other areas, in order to make way for hotels, restaurants and other tourist infrastructure. At present, most of the tourists come mainly from other parts of China – visiting in summer months. The most favorable areas for habitation, closest to supplies of fresh water, are prime targets.

Domestic tourism is indeed booming in China. As economic development swells the ranks of the middle-class, there is increasing demand for new destinations. The number of domestic tourists ballooned from 740 million in 2000 to 1.2 billion last year, according to figures from the China National Tourism Administration and the China National Tourist Office. Amid the tourism boom, previously untouched areas are attracting traveler attention.

Some local people report being asked to move their family homes; others say they are no longer allowed to live in yurts in areas now used to accommodate visitors. Most yurts in the main tourist village in the middle of the park are now souvenir shops, staffed by Han Chinese.

The huts of the community of Tuvans indigenous to the area have been commandeered as souvenir stalls and cafes. The Tuvans – who reap little benefit from the tourist trade and whose community is plagued by alcoholism – have been moved to a newly-built village, smarter in appearance, but further from fresh water.

There are lucrative profits to be reaped from tourism. Over 600,000 visitors are expected to visit Kanas this year, according to Xinjiang TV, with ticket sales in August reaching 6,300 per day at a cost of some $30 each.

There are hotels outside the park gates capable of accommodating over 2,500 people, and more inside the grounds. Additional hotel construction is underway.

A sign outside the park gates calls on visitors to protect the environment: "Implement the project of protecting natural forests. Cherish the beautiful Altay mountains." However, the frenzied pace of development has raised concerns about sustainability, with increasing demand for water and energy, and visitors who generate large amounts of garbage. Officials seek to address concerns about environmental impact with measures ranging from a ban on private vehicles in the park to employing teams of garbage collectors.

While the park is largely garbage free, air pollution levels are rising rapidly, as an increasing number of tourist buses ply the road to the lake, transporting visitors between beauty spots.

Much of the profits go to Chinese businessmen from outside the area who own the hotel and restaurant complexes and souvenir stalls which do a rapid trade with tourists from other parts of China seeking Xinjiang exotica. Locals have also cashed in, albeit to a lesser extent, renting out rooms and horses and charging for photo opportunities with camels and goats.

Some complain that the most lucrative opportunities are closed to them. In spots with high tourist traffic, traders wishing to sell goods and services are now obliged to "pay rent" for the right to operate. "We were born here, this is our homeland – but now we have to buy it," one nomad told EurasiaNet.

The Kazakhs of northern Xinjiang had previously been shielded from the Go West policy by the fact that their home region used to be reachable only by a 24 hour bus journey through the Gurbantunggut desert to Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital and the nearest city of any note. They also have traditionally been seen as less of a threat to territorial integrity than the Uighurs, who have had long demanded independence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

With developers eying the land they live on, some Xinjiang Kazakhs have opted to sell out and move away. Many have opted to go to Kazakhstan, lured by a Kazakhstani government program to attract Kazakh migrants. Aimed at increasing Kazakhstan's population of 15 million, and boosting the number of ethnic Kazakhs to strengthen national identity, the Oralman program – with a current annual quota of 15,000 families – offers a range of incentives, from fast-track citizenship procedures to allowances of up to $900 for new arrivals.

China's ethnic Kazakhs – who currently number some 1.7 million – have a history of moving west in times of change; in the 1950s and 1960s some moved to the Soviet Union in the wake of China's Communist Revolution. Despite being isolated by mountains and deserts, the Kazakhs of northern Xinjiang are nevertheless well-informed about Kazakhstan's incentives to returnees. As the development pace accelerates, an increasing number of Xinjiang's Kazakhs are likely to take advantage of the Oralman program.

Editor's Note: Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

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