Yodeling in the Chinese 'Alps'

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Katie Kingsbury for TIME

Chinese visitors at the theme park East OCT in Shenzhen, China

Lederhosen, fondue, dried seaweed snacks? Guten tag from Shenzhen! Nestled into rolling hills outside this southern boomtown is China's very own Interlaken. No detail of the famed Swiss Alpine resort appears to have been ignored in the local facsimile, from ski chalets, mineral baths and roasting sausages to the fraulein in braids who greets you on arrival. Perhaps the only thing missing from this south Chinese Alpine idyll is, well, snow.

The resort, known as OCT East, is just the latest of dozens of foreign-themed parks springing up all over China. Shanghai has its Weimar Village; Beijing has Greek villas; and Hong Kong, of course, its very own Disneyland — all built in the hope of cashing in on the deepening pockets of the country's expanding middle class. Tourism revenue now accounts for 6% of China's GDP, or more than $600 billion, and the industry is expected to grow 10% annually for the next five years. The World Tourism Organization predicts that China will be the globe's largest tourism market by 2020.

The Interlaken in Shenzhen offers Chinese tourists a little taste of Europe much closer to home. Its developer, Shenzhen OCT Sanzhou Investment, has sunk nearly $450 million into the park's 2,200 acres. Located on a crystal clear (man-made) lake, the centerpiece is a 300-room, five-star hotel with a Gothic cathedral lobby and an Austrian chef. Sometimes, of course, the references are a little off the mark: At the spa, for example, guests can visit an "Arctic cold" sauna. But the drive for authenticity is relentless: Last summer, an Alpine songfest brought yodelers. A wooden Christian chapel sits above a Swiss clock made from flowers. You can tour the whole property aboard an antique railroad that circles it, or view it from the highest summit — some 50 feet high — before plunging down the slope on the gondola-cum-roller coaster. Says hotel event manager Selina Liu: "All of our guests say they forget they're not in Europe."

That may be an exaggeration. After all, the vast majority of OCT East's visitors and its 3,000-person staff are ethnically Chinese — there aren't that many Europeans on hand. And Shenzhen's average annual temperature is 75 degrees Fahrenheit. One passenger on the scenic railroad recently snacked on boiled chicken feet, a local delicacy unlikely to be found in the Alps. Down a short path from the Swiss village is a working Chinese tea plantation, and each afternoon the development's 1,300-seat theater's "Zen Tea Show" sells out. Performed against the world's largest LCD screen, this hour-long spectacle combines ballet, kung-fu and dancing teapots while reminding the audience of China's Buddhist roots. A mountaintop temple is being built nearby to ensure East OCT's feng shui. Reminders of modern China are everywhere in the Alpine resort: One of those quaint Swiss chalets is, in fact, a KFC outlet, while that "mist" rising from the hills is actually smog.

The anticipated bonanza has yet to materialized for East OCT's investors. Since it opened in the summer, the resort has averaged about 2,000 visitors per day — about 4,000 fewer than the developers had hoped to attract during during peak times. But even more established theme parks have also struggled to attract Chinese visitors. In its first year, the Middle Kingdom's Disneyland, which opened in September 2005, had about 15,000 visitors per day, filling about 40% of its capacity. Guests have complained about long lines and high prices at Hong Kong's Disneyland. "It wasn't what I hoped for," says Alex Xu, who recently visited the park from Beijing. "I'd rather save my money and go to the real Disney World some day."

In a country where per capita annual income remains below $2,000, East OCT's $20 entrance fee is an extravagance for many. Still, one local visitor, Zhang Zihua, says she'll return. "I want to bring my daughter," Zhang says, "I want her to work hard to travel to Europe when she's older." To lure the 10-year-old, Zhang is taking home an irresistible souvenir —a box of imported Swiss chocolates.