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Uyghurs hope stability will bring growth in tourism

It covers the changes in China’s western-most region, amid President Xi Jinping’s initiative to revive the Silk Road. The program focuses on the city of Kashgar, located in southern Xinjiang. An overwhelming 90 percent of its population is ethnically Uyghur. It is also where the majority of China’s terrorist attacks took place last year.

A knack for business is part of the Uyghur tradition. Abduany runs a shop at a bazaar selling Uyghur products for both locals and visitors. His hometown, Kashgar, was once a major stop on the ancient Silk Road. Traders from all different regions and ethnicities met here to exchange goods and connect cultures. But these days, business is in decline and Abduany has been struggling.

“Last year, there was a string of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. And now, people from other ethnic groups do not want to visit Kashgar any more, because they think we don’t like them,” Abduany said.

This is Abduany’s apprentice, Abdulimjan. Abduany started his own apprenticeship 20 years ago. Over the years, his skills gradually improved, and so did his business, thanks to an increasing number of outside visitors. Seeing that boom in tourism, hundreds of shops like Abduany’s started expanding and renovating, with the support of local authorities.

“In the past, the houses in this neighborhood were too old and shabby, there were many safety risks. Since 2008, the government and its residents have been co-investing in renovations, in order to raise the living standards while maintaining the Uyghur style,” said Parhati, director of Kashgar Old Town Renovation Office.

Abduany’s neighbor, Salim, has also spent huge amounts to complete renovations on his house. He reserves a special room just to receive guests.

Although he and his family do not speak any mandarin Chinese, his warm smile and plates of unique Uyghur snacks are evidence of his hospitality.

“Uyghurs are very hospitable people. And we are also interested in making friends with outsiders. That’s why I’ve spent quite a lot on the renovation of my house, hoping to receive guests from outside,” he said.

But despite his friendliness, he’s struggled to gain the return on his investment. Salim’s home is in a neighborhood with tens of thousands of other Uyghurs who have just finished renovating their homes and shops. The new streets still have the old Uyghur flavor, but what is missing is the influx of visitors. The recent spate of terror attacks has frightened many away, and it is taking its toll on local Uyghur families.

Although tourism has been in decline over the past few years, there have also been some positive signs.

Xinjiang’s tourism authorities say that in the first quarter of this year, there has been a rebound in several key figures. Official data show that Xinjiang received over 7 million domestic visitors from January to April, up by nearly 10 percent from the same period last year. At the same time, over 250,000 overseas tourists came to Xinjiang, up by around 7 percent. But officials also admit that while they are trying to ride the “Belt and Road” wave to boost tourism, security in the region remains a major challenge.

For locals like Abduany and Salim, they both hope that a small number of extremists and terrorists won’t be allowed to ruin their image of the greater population of ordinary Uyghurs. They say they will continue to work hard, and look forward to welcoming guests into their homes.