Party Time: China Pushes 'Red Tourism'

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Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

Two members of a group of 'Red Tourists' as they visit a former Red Army settlement near the city of Qionghai on the southern Chinese island of Hainan on April 16, 2011

Shaoshan, a small town in the mountains of Hunan province, is the heart of red tourism in China. As the birthplace of Chairman Mao, it attracts millions of tourists a year, all eager to see the farmhouse where the Great Helmsman spent his childhood. But the local government isn't satisfied. Earlier this month, they announced plans to create an enormous outdoor show about Mao Zedong's life and career. To stage the epic, they're hoping to hire no other than Hollywood heavyweight James Cameron. "We are absolutely serious," says local official Xiong Xingbao. "It is important that we stick to high standards by hiring the best people out there."

Whether or not they actually net the Titanic and Avatar director, the project shows the scale and ambition behind China's push to revitalize red tourism. For years, the industry has been dominated by sleepy tours of leaders' homes and historical sites. That's changing. Chongqing's Hongyan village, where hundreds of communists were rounded up and killed by Chiang Kai-shek's forces in the late 1940s, is a prime example. Tourists now swarm the village's museums, where the local government recently staged a play about its historical events. Along the trail of the Long March, tourists take classes on making straw shoes, the ad hoc footwear the communist soldiers famously wore during the epic 1930s walk. The government in Sichuan province also recently announced a plan to spend $375 million on building nine highways connecting the region's major red-tourism attractions.

Red tourism is a big business. Between 2004 and '10, a total of 1.35 billion people have gone on red tours, an average year-on-year increase of 20%. According to the country's state-run news agency, Xinhua, China's revenue in red tourism totaled $20.3 billion in 2010.

However, the red-tourism market depends heavily on government-sponsored group tours, says Wu Chengzhong, associate professor of public administration at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. For example, Xibaipo village, which is located 170 miles to the southwest of Beijing and briefly served as the Chinese Communist Party's headquarters in the late 1940s, would have been an unlikely tourist destination if it hadn't been for government-sponsored red tourism. "For most people, it's not exactly a tough call between vacationing on the beach and visiting some run-down buildings in the middle of nowhere," Wu says.

Selling the idea of red tourism to an increasingly affluent population will take some tinkering. "Entertainment is definitely necessary in attracting more individual tourists," says Wu, adding that the Mao show in Shaoshan may be a sensible step in the right direction. The goal, he says, is to offer people a chance to learn while they enjoy themselves. "We want them to come back from a trip and reflect on their own lives and think, What have I learned that will help make me a better person?"

In Shaoshan, where plans for the Mao epic are underway, Xiong and his colleagues are thinking about how best to pitch the project to Cameron. "Right now, our idea is still a little unclear," says Xiong, adding that although the idea of a live performance came up two years ago, it was suspended because of funding shortage at the time. Now, having landed investment from a private, Beijing-based company, the idea has resurfaced. Says he: "There is no doubt that it's a long shot, but we are willing to try our best."