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Hilltop retreats aim for pinnacle of success in Zhejiang

Erik Nilsson and Yan Yiqi
Updated: Jun 9,2015 8:12 AM     China Daily

A woman enjoys the scenery on the balcony at a popular guesthouse reconstructed from a farmhouse at the Mogan Mountains in Deqing, Zhejiang province.[Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]

When South African national Grant Horsfield sought an escape from the pressures and pollution of China’s metropolises, the stressed-out Shanghai resident never imagined that in achieving his goal, he would also found a getaway that would transform a mountain range in Zhejiang province into a destination for high-end ecotourism.

The travel industry that has since flourished on the bamboo-plumed peaks of the Mogan Mountains is now acclaimed as a model of environmental protection and architectural preservation-and as a way of bringing big bucks to small settlements.

In 2007, as he was exploring the hamlet of Sanjiuwu in Zhejiang’s Deqing county, Horsfield stumbled upon a cluster of derelict farmhouses. Inspired by their business potential, he sought out the owners, leased the abandoned homes and renovated them as guesthouses.

Views of a high-end ecotourism guesthouse in the Mogan Mountains. Each room can generate more than 100,000 yuan in annual tax revenue.[Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]

The deed-holders, village leaders and township authorities all thought Horsfield was crazy, but the project made him insanely wealthy. In 2013, he told Forbes that Naked Retreats-the company he founded for the hamlet project, and whose name alludes to nature not nudity-plans to invest $136 million in resorts across China in the coming years.

The funds will be employed on a number of projects, including reinventing the original Sanjiuwu “Naked Village” site to transform it into “Naked Castle”, a tourist attraction that will boast a replica of a castle that was built by a British man in the 1920s, but no longer stands.

In 2011, Horsfield opened the opulent Naked Stables-featuring a petting zoo, a spa and a driving range where guests can test-drive the latest Land Rover models starting at 1,000 yuan ($160) an hour-in nearby Laoling. He also has a number of “Naked”-brand resorts around the country. Business is good and very profitable; rooms start at around 3,000 yuan a night for adobe huts, and a treetop villa costs about 10,000 yuan. Despite the cost, the waiting list is long, and rooms are often booked months in advance.

Views of a high-end ecotourism guesthouse in the Mogan Mountains. Each room can generate more than 100,000 yuan in annual tax revenue.[Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]

Rising prosperity

The prosperity Horsfield has brought to the Mogan Mountains hasn’t been confined to his own brand, though, and the dozens of rural resorts that have copied his business model charge comparable prices and have equally long reservation times.

Because the local establishments charge top dollar, each room can generate more than 100,000 yuan in annual tax revenue, according to Yao Zhihua, a senior official of Laoling, whose family has leased its home to a tourism developer and owns a 25 percent stake in the business, Natural Valley Villa.

Views of a high-end ecotourism guesthouse in the Mogan Mountains. Each room can generate more than 100,000 yuan in annual tax revenue.[Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]

“My house was empty for 18 years before I let it out for tourism,” Yao said. “Many houses had long been vacant because the villagers had left to become migrant workers. People preferred to tear them (the old houses) down and build new ones. Then, the foreign investors came and turned the old houses into fancy villas. We discovered a sustainable way of using the old buildings.”

Some villagers decided to cut out the middleman and, rather than leasing their buildings to outside entrepreneurs, have started their own guesthouses.

Villagers who lease their houses earn about 10,000 yuan per bed per year, according to Yao. Currently, 63 dwellings in three of Laoling’s nine hamlets are used to house overnight visitors, while other buildings have been converted into cafes, restaurants and exhibition venues.

“Many foreigners come from Shanghai on the weekends. Some wear revealing clothing-even bikinis-which shocked the villagers at first, but they got used to it over time. Now, many locals speak English, and even cook French dishes,” he said.

Views of a high-end ecotourism guesthouse in the Mogan Mountains. Each room can generate more than 100,000 yuan in annual tax revenue.[Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]

Guest demographics have changed, too.

“At first, only foreign tourists came here,” Yao said. “Now it’s about 80 percent Chinese.”

The area’s success has made it a template for other rural districts hoping to develop ecotourism.

“Officials and designers from other towns and villages come to learn from us,” Yao said. “But I’m not worried they’ll steal our business because we have the geographical advantage and an established brand.”

The mountains are about an hour by road from Shanghai, Zhejiang’s capital of Hangzhou, and Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province. The cities of Ningbo, in Zhejiang, and Suzhou, in Jiangsu, are about two hours away.

“The high-speed trains have also made a huge difference,” Yao said, adding that many resorts arrange for visitors to be collected at the railway station and transported to the guesthouse.

In July, a highway was opened linking Deqing with Hangzhou, Jiaxing and Huzhou, which has further contributed to the area’s popularity with tourists. Another highway will soon connect the area with Hangzhou’s satellite cities.

However, tourism isn’t a new phenomenon in the area. From the late 1880s until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the mountains were a popular retreat for missionaries and super-rich foreigners, who built mansions in the area.

Elite playground

In 1896, a British entrepreneur built the area’s first summerhouse, and by 1924, foreign visitors had built 118 villas.

The mountains also became the lair of noted brigands, such as the opium kingpin “Big-Eared” Du and mob boss Zhang Xiaolin, who reportedly fed an unfaithful lover to one of the pet tigers he kept in the area.

In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife spent their honeymoon in the mountains, where the Nationalist leader was secretly visited by Zhou Enlai, who urged the Kuomintang to unite with the Communists against the Japanese occupation of China.

Mao Zedong is also said to have stayed overnight when he traveled through the district five years later.

The flow of expat visitors dried up over time, though. When media magnate Mark Kitto and his Chinese wife opened a lodge in 2003, the British national became the first foreigner to reside in the area in almost 50 years.

However, Horsfield’s venture was the catalyst for the explosion that revitalized the local tourism industry.

In 2007, apart from Horsfield’s guesthouses, only five other establishments offered hospitality, but the following year visitor numbers rocketed to 16,700, according to the local tourism authorities. By 2011, the number of hostels had risen to 35, and 82,000 tourists stayed in the mountains.

Last year, 64 establishments provided overnight stays, attracting 234,000 guests and generating 236 million yuan, according to Yang Weidong, Deqing’s deputy mayor.

Investors in the local tourist industry hail from more than 10 countries, including South Korea, France and the United Kingdom, and tourists from more than 50 countries visited the area last year.

Architectural heritage

The return of foreign visitors and prosperous Chinese has been based in part on the preservation of architecture from the era when the mountains acted as an exclusive playground for wealthy socialites.

Many of the buildings date from the time of the Republic of China (1911-49) and have been lightly renovated, with the main difference between past and present being the contemporary emphasis on environmentally friendly construction and operation.

“Hospitality providers invite teams from Zhejiang University or the China Academy of Art to design and decorate the renovated villas at a cost of up to 300,000 yuan per house,” Yao said. “We believe design is a key attraction, especially for foreign tourists.”

The most expensive room at the Hillside Village was once a pigsty. “The basic idea is to keep the original structures and appearances while infusing the buildings with modern comforts,” Hu Huifen, the manager, said.

The plan has worked.

The cost of a room at the Hillside ranges from 1,180 to 1,580 yuan for weeknights, and a further 200 yuan on weekends. Last year, the occupancy rate was 92 percent, and revenue exceeded 20 million yuan, Hu said.

As of May, all the rooms were booked through October.

“Our decor is eco-friendly and harks back to the old-time style of the house,” Hu said.

The Hillside does not use plastic-soap holders, for example, are made from river stones.

“Some guests like the idea so much that they take stones from the mountain creeks to use at home,” Hu said. “We use bamboo instead of wooden decorations because it takes more than 10 years for a tree to grow, while bamboo can be harvested just 40 days after planting.”

Wood, not gas, is used for cooking, Hu said. “We hope to create a simple, yet comfortable, place to preserve history in nature.”

Rainwater collected in a pool behind the resort is used to flush the toilets. However, no water is taken from the pool during the breeding season of a native species of frog, whose large, white, frothy nests dangle from branches above the pool every May.

Naked Stables uses a sophisticated, filtered wastewater recycling system, and the resort claims to be the first in China to have earned the coveted Platinum certificate awarded by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-a system of ratings for “green” buildings developed by the US Green Building Council-for its environmentally friendly construction.

The retreat is built around nature, rather than the other way around, according to general manager Marco Militzer, who explained that most hotel companies construct the buildings first and then plant trees around them, rather than constructing the buildings around the trees.

Likewise, foreign-owned resorts must be developed around the local community, he said, adding that local hires account for about 70 percent of Naked Stables’ staff.

“Their actual salary is just one part (of their payment) ... they make 20 to 40 percent more (than at their previous jobs),” he said. “It depends on what they did before, if they worked in factories or in the village. It’s not purely about money, but also benefits.”

Those benefits include healthcare and educational opportunities, such as English classes.

Yet while Naked Village mainly attracts foreigners, more than 80 percent of Naked Stable’s guests are Chinese.

“People in places like Shanghai are becoming more conscious of healthy lifestyles,” Militzer said.

“There’s been a shift-and it will become much stronger in China-and people can afford luxury, they can afford cars, and they say: ‘What more is there to life?’ They want their kids to grow up healthily.”