Tourism Geographies, Vol. 6, No. 3, 262–278, August 2004
Tourism and the Making of Place
ASHILD KOL ˚
Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, and International Peace
Research Institute, Oslo, Norway
ABSTRACT This article deals with the development of ethnic tourism in ‘Shangri-La’ and the
concomitant reconstruction of the area as a ‘Tibetan’ place. It discusses how the area has been
‘sacralized’ in the process of incorporating it into the ‘sacred realm’ of Buddhist Tibet, how
it has been ‘ethnicized’ in connection with the establishment of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous
Prefecture and, ﬁnally, how it is currently also being ‘exoticized’ with the promotion of Diqing
as a tourist destination and the renaming of one of its counties, Zhongdian, as ‘Shangri-La’.
The paper explores the tensions between these various ‘place-making’ strategies, how ‘place’ is
reinvented and how hegemonic interpretations of ‘place’ are contested. Theoretically, it brings
together some contemporary perspectives on ‘place making’ from various different ﬁelds, in-
cluding anthropological studies of place and identity, the political geography of territories and
boundaries and studies of pilgrimage and religious geography.
KEY WORDS: Tibet, China, tourism, ethnicity, geography
This paper explores links between the development of tourism in Shangri-La
(Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan), representations of place
and notions of Tibetan identity. The growth of tourism in the Diqing area
creates opportunities for tourism development companies to commodify and
capitalize on Tibetan culture, but tourism may also provide avenues for local
Tibetans to reinvent Diqing as a ‘Tibetan’ place. When Zhongdian County
was renamed Shangri-La (Xianggelila in Chinese) in 2002, the publicity this
created had the effect of attracting more tourists. At the same time, the name
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Place: Tourism and the Making of Place in Shangri-La 263
change may be understood as a way to contest previously dominant represen-
tations of ‘Tibetan-ness’. Religious sites such as Songtseling Monastery and
Khawa Karpo Mountain have become popular tourist attractions. This new
interest in the area’s‘sacred geography’also has important consequences for
the current reconstruction of place and ethnic identity in Diqing.
Since the late 1980s a number of anthropologists and cultural geogra-
phers have made the construction of place their primary object of study and
investigated the interconnections between locality, identity and belonging.
For instance, Bender (1993c), Tilley (1994), Hirsch and O’Hanlon (1995)
and Abramson and Theodossopoulos (2000) have focused on ‘landscape’or
‘land’as an important source of identity and emplacement, while Keith and
Pile (1993), Gupta and Ferguson (1997), Lovell (1998) and others have anal-
ysed ‘place’, belonging and the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Within
other disciplines, such as political geography and political science, the no-
tion of ‘territory’has been re-examined (Connolly 1996; Newman 1999) and
there has been an increasing interest in the study of frontiers, borders and
boundaries between states (Rumley and Minghi 1991; Anderson 1996; Paasi
1996; Shapiro and Alker 1996; Donnan and Wilson 1998; 1999; Newman
At the same time, Tibetan ‘religious geography’,‘sacred space’and pil-
grimage are topics that have received considerable attention in the ﬁeld
of Tibetan studies. Several scholars have described Tibetan ‘place-making’,
mainly based on textual sources such as traditional geographies, texts on
geomancy and on ‘maps’of sacred realms represented by the ‘mandala’(see,
for instance, Gyatso 1987; Buffetrille 1998). Others have studied contempo-
rary ritual practices connected to the worship of territorial deities (Karmay
1994). In particular, ‘guidebooks’for pilgrims (‘gnas yig’or ‘lam yig’) have
provided sources for a number of recent works on pilgrimage (Filibeck 1990;
Buffetrille 1994a; 1994b; Huber 1994; 1997; Kapstein 1997).
This paper attempts to bring together some of these theoretical perspec-
tives to examine the making of ‘place’, or rather ‘places’, in one particular
Tibetan area, now known as Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in Yun-
nan Province. Based on this case, three kinds of ‘place-making’strategies are
discussed. First, the paper describes how the area has been ‘sacralized’in
new ways as it was incorporated into the ‘sacred realm’of Buddhist Tibet.
Secondly, there is an account of how Diqing was established as a ‘minority
area’within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and how it was ‘ethni-
cized’in the process. Finally, there is a description of how the area is currently
also being ‘exoticized’, with the promotion of Diqing as a tourist destination
and the renaming of one of its counties, Zhongdian, as ‘Shangri-La’. The
paper explores some of the tensions between these different ‘place-making’
strategies, as well as their interconnections, and examines how the area is cur-
rently being reinvented as a ‘Tibetan’place. It further discusses how tourism
in ‘Shangri-La’provides opportunities for contesting hegemonic representa-
tions of ‘Tibetan-ness’.
The area now known as Diqing is situated on the edge of the Tibetan
Plateau and is one of the areas where Tibetan and Chinese spheres of polit-
ical inﬂuence have competed for centuries. Since Buddhism gained hold in
the Tibetan region and the Buddhist clergy increased their political inﬂuence,
Buddhism gradually came to characterize the polity of Tibet. With the rise
of the Gelugpa order in Central Tibet during the fourteenth and ﬁfteenth
centuries, monasteries became increasingly important as centres of admin-
istration, especially on the frontiers of the Tibetan cultural area. The larger
monasteries were not only important as centres of learning and religious life,
but also provided crucial links between Lhasa and the areas on the margins
of the Tibetan Plateau. The largest Gelugpa monastery in Diqing today is
Gedan Songtseling Monastery, established in 1679. Local sources say that
Gedan Songtseling received its name from the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, who
is well-known for cementing the political role of the Dalai Lama lineage and
the religio-political power of the Gelugpa order in the seventeenth century.
In addition to Songtseling, another important monastery, Dhondrupling, lo-
cated in what is now Deqin County, was also established in the seventeenth
century. With the founding of Gelugpa monasteries such as Songtseling and
Dhondrupling, ties between local Tibetan leaders and the Dalai Lama’s gov-
ernment in Lhasa were strengthened.
Until the PRC was established in 1949, Songtseling Monastery played an
important role in the administrative affairs of the Gyalthang area, known
in Chinese as the district of Zhongdian. From the beginning of the eigh-
teenth century until 1949 the monastic clergy shared their power with vil-
lage headmen and civilian administrators, led by ofﬁcials appointed by the
Qing rulers and, later, the Nationalist (Guomindang) government. During the
1950s a new administrative setup was introduced. Monasticism was gradu-
ally brought to an end, monasteries and religious sites were destroyed and
pilgrimage and other forms of religious practice were prohibited. Represen-
tatives of the new regime took direct control over the civilian administration.
In the process, many of the old administrative divisions were redrawn, lo-
cal people were systematically categorized as members of ethnic groups or
‘nationalities’and further divided into ‘classes’. Finally, land reforms paved
the way for setting up communes. Eight or nine communes were established
in Zhongdian County, replacing the ﬁve districts previously administered by
the ‘qianzong’(Tibetan: ‘dada’). The areas traditionally administered by the
‘bazong’(Tibetan: ‘gy ¨
u’) were turned into ‘xiang’, and each village became
a‘production team’(Chinese: ‘xiaodui’).
The ‘Mao era’eventually gave way to the ‘Deng era’in the late 1970s.
The new political climate brought far-reaching economic reforms, includ-
ing the return of private ownership, as well as new policies on ‘minority
nationalities’and religious practice. In Diqing, pilgrimage and the worship
of mountain deities (Tibetan: ‘ri bdag’) were among the practices that were
revived and nearly all the monasteries have been rebuilt. With the increasing
economic importance of tourism, particularly after the 1998 logging ban,
Place: Tourism and the Making of Place in Shangri-La 265
religious sites such as Khawa Karpo Mountain and Songtseling Monastery
have become important tourist destinations. Today, Han Chinese as well
as Western tourists show an enormous interest in the area’s‘sacred sites’.
When the area was identiﬁed as ‘Shangri-La’and Zhongdian County was
ofﬁcially renamed in 2002, this was also a great boost to tourism. Although
it may well be described a mythologizing ‘game’played by bureaucrats and
entrepreneurs, the name change has important consequences for the way
Diqing is understood as an ethnic minority area and a ‘Tibetan’area, in
In order to develop a deeper understanding of how ‘place’is reinvented and
contested in the contemporary development of tourism, this paper explores
the making of ‘place’in a historical perspective and discusses links between
the current promotion of tourist sites and the ‘place-making’strategies of
representatives of the Chinese state as well as of local inhabitants of Diqing.
By way of a discussion of ‘place’, the paper attempts to clarify some of the
links between tourism, the reproduction of ethnicity and the revitalization
of cultural and religious traditions.
Mountain Cults and Buddhist Tibet
For centuries the performance of rituals for the ‘ri bdag’(‘mountain owners’)
has served to create a sense of community in the Gyalthang area. At certain
times of the year, the men in each household would go together to the ridge of
their local mountain to burn ‘sang’, make offerings and plant ritual arrows
(Tibetan: ‘mda’r god’)inthe‘rtse phung’. During the summer horse race
festival they would also go to the slope of the mountain above the race
course to make offerings there. Since the offerings were performed by the
members of many or all the households in the village, they served to conﬁrm
and strengthen family ties and ties between the households that made up the
Near the town of Zhongxin, the capital of Shangri-La County and prefec-
ture capital of Diqing, there is a temple for worshipping the ‘ri bdag’of the
town itself, the ‘dzong lha’. It is located on the slope of a mountain called
Wufengshan (‘nag rdog’in Tibetan), overlooking the county racecourse. The
temple contains images of a deity named ‘gzhi bdag nag rdog’(literally ‘black
humped mountain owner’), seated on a black horse. Just next to the temple
is a cairn with ritual arrows. As with other ‘ri bdag’, Tibetans worship the
‘dzong lha’by reciting prayers, burning incense and planting ritual arrows
in the cairn.
Territorial gods (Tibetan: ‘yul lha’) are mentioned in Tibetan texts exca-
vated at Dunhuang from as early as the seventh–tenth centuries (Buffetrille
1998: 20), and most scholars agree that the cult of the ‘yul lha’pre-dates
the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet. Annual rituals related to the ‘yul lha’often
involve competitions such as horseracing and archery, singing and dancing,
and the planting of ritual arrows in a cairn, usually located on the slope of
the mountain (Karmay 1994).
A signiﬁcant site in the geography of Diqing is Khawa Karpo Mountain,
which is known as one of eight major mountain pilgrimage destinations
(Tibetan: ‘gnas ri’) for Tibetan worshippers. The mountain attracts pilgrims
from the entire Tibetan region. Some visit temples on the slope of the moun-
tain, but many people also circumambulate the mountain on a route that
takes four or ﬁve days and a few take a longer route that takes at least
two weeks. The Year of the Sheep is the best year to make the pilgrimage
to Khawa Karpo. In that year, pilgrims come together from far and near to
make offerings and walk around the mountain. Local Tibetan monks related
that Khawa Karpo is a palace for the deity named ‘bdun mchog’, for whom
offerings are performed during the Kalachakra ceremony. The association
of Khawa Karpo with a signiﬁcant deity in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon
serves as yet another way to incorporate the area into the Tibetan realm and
to ‘sacralize’the land in a new way.
There are numerous descriptions in the Tibetan Buddhist literature of how
Indian Buddhist masters, particularly Padmasambhava, subjugated territo-
rial gods and other pre-Buddhist deities and spirits with the introduction of
Buddhism to Tibet. Pilgrimage guidebooks, written by the Buddhist clergy
and passed on orally to illiterate pilgrims, played an important role in convey-
ing this new understanding of sacred space. According to Buffetrille (1998:
23), these accounts reveal that the Buddhist authorities could neither accept
the territorial deities nor could they suppress them completely. The solu-
tion was one of ‘Buddhicization’, that is to incorporate the ‘yul lha’into the
Buddhist universe and transform them into ‘protector deities’. In the process,
the ‘yul lha’mountain was recast as a ‘gnas ri’, or pilgrimage mountain and
worship by local communities on the slope of the mountain was replaced, or
at least overlaid, by the practice of circumambulation by Buddhist pilgrims.
At the same time, the communities that worshipped these territorial deities
were symbolically incorporated into the Buddhist state of Tibet.
The information gathered by the author in Diqing seems to corroborate
much of Buffetrille’s analysis. For instance, one interview gave the expla-
nation that ‘in the old days’the deity who inhabited Khawa Karpo was a
‘rong brtsan’, who was converted into a Buddhist deity by Pema Chungnye
The word ‘rong’means valley and ‘brtsan’is a spirit that belongs to the human
realm. When Pema Chungnye arrived from India, he meditated in a cave on
Mount Khawa Karpo. The ‘brtsan’who inhabited Khawa Karpo was then
converted to a Buddhist deity. The palace inhabited by this deity was called
‘gdan mchog’, which refers to ‘the palace of Dharma’(‘chos kyi podrang’). The
Khawa Karpo deity is white and sits on a white horse, holds a thunderbolt in
one hand, and is just like the protector of the north that is painted outside the
doorways of Buddhist temples.
Place: Tourism and the Making of Place in Shangri-La 267
Images of the Khawa Karpo deity are displayed at several sites along the
pilgrimage route encircling the mountain. One of them, the Ch ¨
(Mirror Stupa), has a special signiﬁcance for pilgrims to Khawa Karpo, in
that any pilgrim to the mountain must visit this temple ﬁrst. People believe
that this is necessary in order to be spiritually ‘qualiﬁed’for the pilgrimage
and that if they fail to visit the temple their pilgrimage will be of no beneﬁt.
When asked about the difference between worshipping a ‘ri bdag’and
the Khawa Karpo deity, some people would say that the worship of the ‘ri
on’practice, connected to pre-Buddhist religious beliefs, whereas
mountain pilgrimage is a ‘Buddhist’practice. On the other hand, this dis-
tinction seems to be insigniﬁcant in practice. For instance, even Buddhist
monastic communities perform rituals for the local ‘ri bdag’. What is more
signiﬁcant is that while the ‘ri bdag’is important to the local community
who worship it, the deity who inhabits a ‘gnas ri’such as Khawa Karpo
is important to all Tibetan Buddhists. However, a pilgrimage to a Buddhist
holy mountain cannot replace the rituals performed for the ‘ri bdag’, since
these are two very different practices. This is why, despite a long history of
‘Buddhicization’, both forms of worship continue in close proximity. The
rituals performed for the ‘ri bdag’serve primarily to conﬁrm the importance
of families and local communities, while the worship of the Khawa Karpo
deity serves to reafﬁrm ‘Tibetan-ness’and symbolically incorporate the area
and its inhabitants into the Tibetan realm.
In the mid-1980s the late tenth Panchen Lama (second only to the Dalai
Lama as a Tibetan religious leader and political ﬁgure) made several visits
to Diqing and one of the places he visited was Khawa Karpo. Several people
told the author about this visit and, especially, about the famous picture that
was taken on that occasion. People say that the weather that day was very
cloudy and it was impossible to see the mountain. But after many hours
of recitations and rituals, when the Panchen Lama took up a can to pour
holy water out, then suddenly the clouds lifted, like a curtain, and the peak
became visible. According to some, only the Panchen Lama could make the
peak ‘show itself’, since he and the mountain are ‘like brothers’.
In order to appreciate the signiﬁcance of such statements and how they
implicitly connect Khawa Karpo with the reafﬁrmation of ‘Tibetan-ness’,itis
necessary to understand what the Panchen Lama’s visits meant to Tibetans
in Diqing. His visits came at a time when there was still a great deal of
uncertainty about the actual consequences of the Open Doors policy and the
new political climate it entailed. This was before the monasteries had been
rebuilt and before the building of a Tibetan Middle School where students
could learn Tibetan. At that time the Panchen Lama brought a message to
local Tibetans that made a deep impression:
When the Panchen Lama came to visit us he asked the Tibetan teachers if
they knew how to read Tibetan, and if they spoke Tibetan every day. They
said no. When he asked people their names, they would sometimes tell him
their Chinese names. He was disappointed and angry, and asked why they
used Chinese rather than Tibetan names. He spent a whole day outside, in the
square, just touching people on the head. The Panchen Lama is the Buddha of
Wisdom. When he was here he told everybody: ‘Look at me, I know Marxism
and I know Tibetan Buddhism. We must all learn what we can from other
traditions, but without losing our own tradition. We must learn to read and
write Tibetan, and we must speak Tibetan. We must keep our language alive,
but at the same time we must learn what we can from others.
The picture of the Panchen Lama in front of Khawa Karpo has a very special
signiﬁcance to local Tibetans. The reason is partly because it both echoes
and reproduces the symbolic connections between Tibetan identity and the
worship of a holy mountain. However, these connections are usually not
made explicit. If you ask a Tibetan what is the difference between worship-
ping a ‘ri bdag’and worshipping the Khawa Karpo deity, he or she would
probably answer much more pragmatically: ‘If you go to Wufengshan, you
go for protection and good business, but if you go to Khawa Karpo you go
for a good rebirth, and to purify your spirit’.
Creating the Peoples and Places of the People’s Republic
Recent studies of border communities and of people who cross borders have
served to highlight how the state exercises both physical and symbolic power
(see, for example, Paasi 1996; Donnan and Wilson 1998). Within this con-
text, symbolic power refers to the power to deﬁne state territory and cate-
gorize the citizens of a state. Mapping is one of the most important methods
utilized by states in their efforts to reconstruct ‘place’according to the spatial
scales of state territory. If one understands ‘place’as ‘space inscribed with
meaning and agency’, then some would argue that the territorial space of
the Communist state is in fact ‘placeless’and that the state has actually been
engaged in an ‘anti-place’practice of ‘displacing’indigenous constructions
of place. It is probably more accurate to say that when boundaries were re-
drawn and new administrative units were created by the state this served the
dual purpose of ‘displacing’indigenous constructions and ‘replacing’them
with state constructions.
The Communist state had its own ways of inscribing space with meaning
and agency. First, the new regime propagated the message that the PRC was
a‘multiethnic’state where each ethnic group or ‘nationality’was to be ac-
corded ‘autonomy’within the boundaries of their own territory. Secondly,
when religious practices and ‘old culture’were attacked, ‘land reforms’in-
troduced and communes established, the regime also tried to transform its
territory into the ‘New China’, and this meant erasing anything that might
remind people of the ‘old society’. This is reﬂected in the invention of new
place names. When the administrative setup was redrawn in Diqing, for ex-
ample, many of the new administrative units, particularly the administrative
Place: Tourism and the Making of Place in Shangri-La 269
villages (Chinese: ‘cun’), were named with popular slogans of the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) such as ‘peace’and ‘unite’, while some were simply
named ‘village number one’,‘village number two’and so forth, in Chinese.
The main street of Zhongxin was named ‘Long March Road’to commemo-
rate the Long March of the Second Division of the Red Army, which passed
through Zhongdian in 1936. These are just a few examples of how the Com-
munist state employed place names for ideological purposes.
During the 1950s the study of geography in the PRC followed the Soviet
pattern, where the subject was treated as a physical science whose ‘sole
aim’was ‘to assist in the exploitation of the natural environment’(Hsieh
1959: 543). Concomitant to the remapping of the territory of the PRC, the
authorities also initiated a large-scale ‘ethnicizing’project, to identify the
ethnic groups living within its boundaries. In the ‘nationalities identiﬁcation
project’(Chinese: ‘minzu shibie’), initiated in the early 1950s, Chinese eth-
nologists were given the task of deﬁning the ethnic groups or ‘nationalities’
(Chinese: ‘minzu’) of China, following Stalin’sdeﬁnition of ‘nationality’.As
in the Soviet model, one of the primary reasons for identifying the ‘nationali-
ties’was that areas inhabited by ‘minority nationalities’were to be accorded
‘autonomous’status, in which speciﬁc policies were to be introduced for the
beneﬁt of the minorities.
The system of ‘autonomous areas’that was established in the PRC rests
on the understanding that speciﬁc discernible areas of China are inhabited
largely by ‘ethnic minorities’, distinguishable from the majority ‘Han’popu-
lation by virtue of distinct, shared, cultural traits. In Yunnan Province alone,
25 different ethnic minority groups were identiﬁed. According to the demo-
graphic ﬁgures compiled for the 1980 national census, there were eight differ-
ent ethnic minorities with populations above 1,000 living in Diqing. Despite
the fact that the prefecture was designated ‘Tibetan’, the ethnic composi-
tion of the three counties was widely disparate. In Deqin County ‘Tibetans’
constituted about 80 percent of the population and, in Zhongdian County
(now Shangri-La), the equivalent ﬁgure was about 40 percent of the popu-
lation. In Weixi County, however, only six percent of the population were
registered as ‘Tibetans’, while the majority of people there were registered as
‘Lisu’. In 1985 Weixi was ﬁnally redeﬁned as a ‘Lisu Autonomous County’,
according to the principles of autonomy that should have been followed in
the 1950s. However, a few village districts within Weixi were classiﬁed as
‘Tibetan’when they formed their own ‘village committees’(Chinese: ‘cun
Disagreements about ethnic boundaries are by no means uncommon in
China. Throughout the ‘minority areas’of China, ‘nationality’identities
and the boundaries of ‘autonomous’areas are contested and subject to
continuous renegotiation, despite the stereotypes that are recounted in ofﬁ-
cial discourse (see, for example, Harrell 1995; 1996; Brown 1996; Wellens
1998). What is exempt from negotiation is the very scheme of classifying
‘nationalities’and the ideological premises, often referred to as ‘scientiﬁc’,
that the classiﬁcation is based on. The problem is therefore still seen as a
question of ﬁnding the correct scientiﬁc classiﬁcation.
Theoretically, the boundaries of the ‘autonomous’areas were supposed to
reﬂect the distribution of ethnic groups. In practice this often failed, and the
reasons for this go beyond the problem of ethnic classiﬁcation. As for the
Tibetan areas, an explicit goal of the PRC authorities was to break down the
inﬂuence of the ‘feudal theocracy’and reconstruct the area along the politico-
economic lines of the Communist state. Furthermore, the main purpose of
redrawing the boundaries was to reorganize the system of production and,
in this respect, communes and production teams were the essential units.
In 1957, when the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture was formally
inaugurated, the work of dividing its population into classes was already well
underway. This was followed closely by the conﬁscation of land from the
wealthy landowners in the campaign known as ‘land reforms’(Chinese: ‘tudi
gaige’). Soon after, communes were set up and each village was organized as
a production team.
The commune system put an end to pilgrimage, since all movements were
strictly limited by the work schedule in the production brigade. Monasteries
also lost their land in the ‘land reforms’and, by the time communes were
introduced, monks and nuns had been forced away from the monasteries.
With the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 religious practice became
one of the primary targets of criticism. The performance of rituals to the
‘ri bdag’was also forbidden at that time. When pilgrimage and other types
of religious practice were again allowed in the early 1980s, they became
signiﬁcant not only as religious expressions, but as a way to contest the atheist
ideology of the CCP as well as the technocratic ‘place-making’strategies of
the Chinese state. In other words, this paper would suggest that the revival of
rituals for the ‘ri bdag’and, especially, of mountain pilgrimage, have taken
on additional meanings in the present context, as a way to reclaim places as
Locating ‘Shangri-La’: The Making of a Tourist Destination
In the PRC, ‘minority nationalities’have been cast as representatives of less
‘advanced’, more ‘primitive’, stages of social evolution. In school textbooks
as well as the media, the ‘backwardness’of the minorities has been contrasted
to the ‘modernity’of the Han Chinese. While highlighting the ‘backward-
ness’of minority nationalities, the ‘nationalities identiﬁcation project’also
produced the effect of distinguishing the various ‘nationalities’according to
speciﬁc ethnic markers, such as dress, arts and crafts, architecture, typical
livelihoods, festivals and religious practices. These stereotypes are currently
being commodiﬁed for the sake of tourism, through the making of ethnic arts
and handicrafts products, the creation of staged ethnic tourist performances,
as well as other tourist products marketed locally and in ethnic theme parks
Place: Tourism and the Making of Place in Shangri-La 271
and ‘tourist villages’(see, for example, Oakes 1997; 1998; Schein 2000).
Tourism, thus, serves to reinforce hegemonic representations of ‘minority
nationalities’and the places they inhabit. However, it is suggested here that
the reproduction of differences inherent in the process of marketing minori-
ties for tourists may also create a space for the re-negotiation of ‘nationality’
identity as well as the meaning of ‘minority areas’. In Tibetan areas such as
Diqing, ‘place’is also given new meanings as tourists congregate at the sites
that are most signiﬁcant to the area’s sacred geography, particularly Khawa
Karpo and Songtseling.
A number of tourism studies have described the creation of myths about
tourist destinations (see Selwyn 1996). For example, while Lapland has been
romanticized as the ‘Last Wilderness of Europe’(Pedersen and Viken 1996),
various islands in the Paciﬁc are marketed as ‘Paradise’(Burns 1999). With
the development of tourism in Diqing, a similar strategy is being used there.
The area is currently being promoted as ‘Shangri-La’, the site that inspired
James Hilton to write his best-selling novel Lost Horizon (1933), ﬁlmed by
Frank Capra in 1937. The search for the location of this ﬁctional Shangri-La
has been going on in various parts of northern Yunnan since the mid-1990s.
In 1997 the Yunnan Economy & Technology Research Centre, determined to
ﬁnd the ‘real Shangri-La’, even commissioned a study, which concluded that
the facts were in favour of Diqing. As in Hilton’s novel, three rivers crisscross
the area, the Mekong (Lancang), the Salween (Nu) and the Golden Sand
(Jinsha). After a ‘careful investigation’they also found that an American
transport plane did, indeed, crash in Zhongdian, which made them certain
that Diqing was the model for Hilton’s story of Shangri-La. In May 2002,
Zhongdian County was ofﬁcially renamed Shangri-La County (see Hillman
2003 for a detailed description of the renaming process).
After commercial logging was banned in 1998, tourism has become the
most important source of revenue in Diqing. The commercial signiﬁcance
of being ‘certiﬁed’as Shangri-La has no doubt represented an enormous
economic beneﬁt. When the head of the Prefecture Tourism Department
was interviewed, he argued that ‘this has been a great support from the
central government to the Tibetan region’, emphasizing the publicity they
had received thanks to the name change, as he showed me the most recent
statistics on the number of tourist arrivals. He further explained that ‘this
is a part of a much larger plan, where all the areas involved will beneﬁt
Government ofﬁcials in the prefecture and county governments play a sig-
niﬁcant role in the planning of tourism development. Many of the bureau-
crats are Tibetans or members of other ‘nationalities’. These ‘culture brokers’
are working within the vestiges of a party-controlled, planned economy sys-
tem, where economic reform policies have so far not been fully implemented.
Government and Party bureaucrats are still advantaged in terms of political
power and are also in a good position to draw ﬁnancial beneﬁts from tourism.
They sometimes play dual roles as ofﬁcials and private entrepreneurs and it
is, therefore, not surprising to ﬁnd that these ofﬁcials are actively engaged
in the representation of the area as Shangri-La.
Since the late 1990s local ofﬁcials have been working actively to revive
‘Tibetan culture’in Diqing. In 1998 they had formulated a ﬁve-point plan,
where one of the top priorities was to ‘rescue Tibetan culture’, explicitly
understood as a resource to be invested in for the sake of tourism. Folk
songs, folk dances and music had been particularly singled out as cultural
‘products’for tourist consumption. Religious sites such as monasteries were
also perceived by government ofﬁcials as ‘cultural resources’that could be
used to attract tourists. Contrary to the tradition of keeping monasteries
open to pilgrims, ticket sales had already been introduced at the largest
monastery in the county, Songtseling, and a gift shop had been set up at the
entrance. When discussing ways to develop tourism, government ofﬁcials
in the Culture Department explained that there was a need to ‘develop’
monasteries further as tourist sites and help revive traditional religious arts.
The head of the Tourism Department also emphasized the importance of
preserving Tibetan culture. He stated that in his opinion, ‘Shangri-La stands
for preserving nature and culture’. He further claimed that: ‘Tourists like the
exotic, to return to nature. They don’t like modernisation. Foreign tourists
will make up the majority of tourists who visit this area in the future. Other
areas are too developed, and this area will attract them’.
It is clear from their statements that these ofﬁcials have fairly elaborate
ideas about the attractions Diqing has to offer tourists. They know that
identifying the Diqing area as ‘Shangri-La’is an important way to ‘package’
their place for tourist consumption.
The success of this marketing strategy, evident in the increasing numbers
of tourists visiting Diqing, also says something about the other side of the
‘tourist gaze’. The tourists, predominantly urban Chinese, obviously ﬁnd
the area attractive as a tourist destination. The question is why? In China
people are taught in school that Tibet was a slave state ruled by a despotic
‘lamaist’clergy prior to its ‘liberation’. As one journalist commented, for
the authorities, pre-occupation Tibetan society ‘could scarcely have been the
earthly Utopia that inspired Hilton’s 1933 novel’(Korski 1997). And yet,
even the China Daily,anofﬁcial mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist
Party, seems to endorse the idea that Diqing really is a ‘paradise-on-earth’.
Xuan Ke, a local amateur historian who is cited in several reports as the ﬁrst
person to identify Diqing as Shangri-La, hints at why this might be the case:
‘This is not for tourists,’Mr. Xuan scoffs. ‘It’s for real people looking for a real
place where there is harmony. If Shangri-La is only for tourism and three-star
hotels, I say no. There are blue skies, not like Beijing,’he adds. ‘People are
searching for a new world. No money, no power, no politics. This is the place
people have dreamed of, from the book and the movie.’(Korski 1997).
Selwyn (1996: 3) has argued that tourist perceptions of destinations such as
Nepal are shaped by a preoccupation with harmonious social relations and
Place: Tourism and the Making of Place in Shangri-La 273
ideas about community. In a similar vein, Graburn (1995) has claimed that
Japanese tourism to rural areas such as spas and heritage sites results from
an attempt to ﬁnd some kind of nostalgic rejuvenation in the face of the in-
creasing problems of living in a modern, urbanized society. It can be argued
that these factors can also explain what attracts urban Chinese tourists to
Shangri-La, often gloriﬁed as a place of ‘peace and harmony’,‘clear water and
blue skies’and ‘friendly people’. What makes the case of Diqing different is
that the image of Shangri-La represents such a stark contrast to the way that
Tibetan society has been portrayed in the discourses of the Chinese Commu-
nist state. What has been depicted until now as a ‘primitive’and ‘backward’
society is suddenly represented not only as exotic, but even as a Utopia.
Tourism has become an important site for negotiating the meanings of eth-
nicity in contemporary China. The primary goal of the Chinese authorities
is to promote the image of China as a uniﬁed, multicultural and multieth-
nic state, where the ‘minority nationalities’represent the more colourful
and exotic varieties of Chinese culture, whereas the Han represent the more
‘modern’and cosmopolitan culture. As described by Swain (2001), Chinese
‘cosmopolitan’tourists are primarily engaged in ‘an exercise in modernity’.
Swain argues that tourists travel in Yunnan to ‘consume’natural and cultural
landscapes: ‘Nature is controlled by packaging it in cable car rides, concrete
pathways, and coach tours, and culture is objectiﬁed by seeing Han heritage
as something in the past, and diverse ethnic group practices as frozen in time
and primitive’(2001: 137).
Oakes (1997: 42) argues that the construction of theme parks such as
‘Splendid China’is a sign of a general trend in China, in which tourism and
intensiﬁed market commercialism have collaborated to invent a ‘landscape
of nostalgia on which to build a sense of national identity’. Apparently, the
‘minority nationalities’now have yet another role to play in the construction
of a modern Chinese identity, as objects of a longing for the Chinese ‘past’.
For some, ‘Shangri-La’may be just another such ‘landscape of nostalgia’.
For others, ‘Shangri-La’represents what is missing in contemporary Chinese
society. This is perhaps what Petersen (1995) refers to as a strong sense of
‘cultural pilgrimage’in much of Chinese domestic tourism. The nostalgia of
Chinese tourism is an expression of longing, not just for ‘traditional China’,
but also for the experience of an unpolluted natural environment and the
lifestyles of ‘the people of nature’(see Graburn 2001: 82).
The case of Diqing shows that, at present, even the contrast between the
‘primitive’minorities and the ‘modern’Han Chinese is taking on new mean-
ings, as urban Chinese search for the place of their dreams in the unspoiled
nature and simple lifestyles of ‘minority areas’such as Shangri-La. Tourism
developers have taken advantage of this trend and represent Diqing as a
place where people live ‘in harmony with nature’. Shangri-La has come to
symbolize ‘the longing of human beings for a perfect and peaceful world’,
where there is ‘complete harmony between man and nature, and man and
man’(Liu and Liu 1997).
Creating, Reinventing, Contesting ‘Place’
Bender (1993a: 2–3) accurately describes landscape as ‘polysemic’and adds
that ‘each individual holds many landscapes in tension’. She also acknowl-
edges that people not only engage with landscape, they re-work, appropriate
and contest it. In short, landscape is a concept of high tension (Bender 1993a:
3). While it is important to explore the meanings of place, in the sense of how
landscapes and places are experienced and how notions of place may produce
feelings of belonging, a critical investigation should also ask how notions of
place are established as ‘real’, who has the power to create, reinvent and con-
test places and what is at stake for those who engage in these practices. Too
much emphasis on the subjective construction of landscapes and places may
obscure the sense in which land also exists as an important resource (Abram-
son and Theodossopoulos 2000). In order to examine ‘place making’criti-
cally it is necessary to explore how notions of place and identity are linked not
only to property rights, but to the control of vital economic and political as-
sets, such as rights of taxation, strategic importance for military defence, the
ability to exercise social control, as well as to proﬁt from the tourist industry.
One important way of disputing territories is to contest the ways they
are represented, an issue that is also at the very junction of the experiential/
symbolic and the political/economical perspectives. This is precisely what
has happened in much of the Fourth World, especially the Arctic region and
Australia, where disputes over land between the state and indigenous peoples
have involved clashes in ways of representing land, and different notions of
‘place’have been brought to the centre-stage of the debate. Indigenous peo-
ples are not the only ones to contest dominant meanings of ‘place’. In Britain,
for instance, hippy travellers struggling for their right to use Stonehenge as
a sight for ‘free festivals’, as well as road protesters who chain themselves to
trees, are ﬁghting the authorities by radically redeﬁning ‘place’(see Bender
1993b; Durman 2000).
The politics of reinventing and contesting ‘place’in Diqing are, perhaps,
less radical than the examples just cited. One important reason for this is that
the Chinese authorities effectively subdue any attempt, whether by Tibetans
or other inhabitants of China, to question the political and ethnographic
order of things as represented by the PRC authorities. Whereas borders
between counties, prefectures and even provinces are quite often subject
to controversy, the political and administrative system, as such, is not. None
the less, the meanings of place can be reworked by more abstruse means. One
way of doing this is to appropriate tradition and revoke ‘ancient’ways of
representing place, no less contested in the past, as in the revival of pilgrimage
and mountain cults.
When tourists follow in the paths of pilgrims, tourism may, in fact, boost
‘traditional’representations of place. On the other hand, tourism develop-
ment also creates new tensions, between the use of sites as tourist destinations
and the maintenance of ‘sacralized’notions of place. There is a serious risk
Place: Tourism and the Making of Place in Shangri-La 275
that some monasteries may ﬁnd themselves ‘invaded’by increasing numbers
of tourists. Songtseling, for example, receives a large number of tour groups
every year and the sale of tickets to tourists is currently a key income source
for the monastery, as well as a source of revenue for the county govern-
ment. Economic concerns have led to a situation where tour groups and
their guides are admitted to the monastery from morning to evening, regard-
less of what rituals are being performed. The presence of tour groups and
their guides wandering around the premises may sometimes be disturbing.
The monastery has issued complaints to the local government about this,
but the problem is currently far from being solved.
Another way of reworking the meanings of ‘place’and of subverting hege-
monic interpretations, has been accomplished by the renaming of Zhongdian
County as ‘Shangri-La’. Ever since the 1950s, ‘feudal’and ‘slave society’have
been key terms used by Chinese social scientists to describe the traditional
Tibetan society. The Marxist conception of evolutionary stages of social
forms and the alleged ‘backwardness’and ‘primitivity’of ‘minority national-
ities’, has also been emphatically propagated to the general public. In school
textbooks and the mass media, expressions such as ‘backward’and ‘supersti-
tious’have been used to describe Tibetans and other ‘minority nationalities’.
In sharp contrast to these unfavourable representations of ‘Tibetan-ness’,a
Tibetan area is currently represented as an exotic ‘Shangri-La’. Moreover,
the change of names has been approved by the central government, which
means that the re-interpretation of this particular place has actually been
endorsed by the authorities.
The main purpose for renaming Zhongdian County ‘Shangri-La’was un-
doubtedly commercial. Nevertheless, the name change has consequences for
the way the area is understood. ‘Shangri-La’provides an answer to the
dreams of urban Chinese, attracted to a place where people live ‘in har-
mony with each other and the environment’. For whatever reasons, this is
something that people in Diqing are becoming aware of, and that further
affects the meanings they attach to the place where they live.
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Notes on Contributor
as has a research degree in Social Anthropology from the Univer-
sity of Oslo (1994). She has conducted ﬁeldwork in Tibetan areas of China
and in Tibetan settlements in India and has written on contemporary Tibet,
focusing on identity politics. From 1997 until 2001 she worked as research
co-ordinator and researcher for the PRIO project on Tibetan Culture in
China and, since 2001, she has conducted research on ethnic tourism in a
Tibetan area in Yunnan Province.
e: Le tourisme et la cr´
eation de lieu au Shangri-La
Cet article examine le d´
eveloppement du tourisme ethnique au Shangri-La et la reconstruc-
tion corollaire de la zone comme lieu v´
etain. L’article d´
ecrit le processus de
sacralization du lieu par son incorporation dans le domaine sacr´
e du Tibet bouddhiste, le pro-
cessus de son identiﬁcation ethnique grˆ
eation de la pr´
efecture autonome tib´
de Diqing, et ﬁnalement son exoticization lors de la promotion de Diqing comme destination
touristique. On a ´
e le nom de Shangri-La `
a la circonscription de Zhongdian.
L’article explore les tensions entre ces diverses strat´
egies de cr´
eation de lieu, comment on a
e le lieu et comment les interpr´
emoniques de lieu sont contest´
combine plusieurs perspectives th´
eoriques sur la ‘cr´
eation de lieu’tir´
ees de diverses disciplines,
telles que l’anthropologie et ses ´
etudes sur les liens entre lieu et identit´
e, la g´
et ses ´
etudes de territoires et de limites et les ´
etudes sur les p`
elerinages et la g´
es: Tibet, Chine, tourisme, ethnicit´
Zusammenfassung: Tourismus und die Kreation des Ortsverst ¨
Dieser Beitrag behandelt die Entwicklung des Ethno-Tourismus in ‘Shangri-La’und die
laufende Rekonstruktion dieser Gegend als ein ‘tibetischer’Platz. Dabei wird diskutiert,
wie dieses Gebiet durch die Einbeziehung in das ‘g¨
ottliche K ¨
Tibet ‘geheiligt’, wie es durch die Schaffung der Diqing-Tibetanisch Autonome Pr¨
‘ethnisiert’und schließlich wie es gegenw¨
artig ‘exotisiert’wurde mit der Vermarktung von
Diqing als Tourismusziel, was sich auch in der Umbenennung eines der Pr¨
Zhongdian, in ‘Shangri-La’niederschlug. Der Aufsatz untersucht die Spannungen zwischen
diesen verschiedenen ‘Ortsverst¨
andnisstrategien’, wie ein ‘Ort’neu erfunden wird und wie
andnisse herausgefordert werden. Auf der theoretischen Ebene bringt
dieser Beitrag einige zeitgen ¨
ossische Ansichten der ‘Schaffung von Orten’aus verschiedenen
Disziplinen zusammen einschließlich der anthropologischen Orts- und Indentit¨
der politischen Geographie von Gebieten und Grenzen sowie Pilgerfahrtsuntersuchungen der
orter: Tibet, China, Tourismus, Ethnizit ¨