Village at crossroads of tourism and opportunity

Once deemed a geographical disadvantage, a village in Zhejiang province has now become an appealing tourism destination.

Shantang village sits in the northeastern tip of Guangchen town and was off the beaten track when the road was not in good condition.

However, as transportation improved, the close proximity to Shanghai has piqued travelers' interest toward the village that is connected to Shanghai by a stone bridge over a river.

Jin Jiandong, Party secretary of Shantang, says many travelers want to see what the village at the juncture of Zhejiang and Shanghai is like.

"Visitors have made their way here over the years," Jin says.

Tourists can walk among lush trees and grasslands, take in the view of the lake while getting a glimpse into the past through old items such as sewing machines, radios and photos that are preserved in a museum converted from an old residence.

In 2018, local authorities drew up a plan to turn the village into a national scenic spot with distinctive local elements.

Buses connecting the village to neighboring provinces are up and running. Dragon boat competitions and local specialty festivals have been held to enrich visitor experience.

Local authorities have also restored a street dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to boost rural tourism in the village.

Shantang now offers sightseeing, leisure and shopping activities.

Liu Qiao, an official in charge of Shantang's culture and tourism, says all the shops that feature white walls and gray tiled roofs were built on old buildings.

Favorable policies have been introduced to encourage locals set up shop on the streets.

"We have offered guidance to locals on what kind of businesses they could run or how to decorate their shops," Liu says.

Locals enjoy free rental in the first year, 80 percent off rent in the second year, and then 60 percent off in the third year.

Last year, the historical street had 400,000 tourist visits earning more than 20 million yuan ($3.1 million) in tourism income.

Out of the 70 shops on the street, more than 40 shops are run by locals.

"We found our villagers showing a strong willingness to work when the opportunity comes," Jin says.

Sun Xiaomei is now running a grocery store for her daughter on the street.

"Business was especially good during the Labor Day holiday," Sun says.

Her family used to live off the land and earned some extra money making clothes in the village.

Ever since tourism development took off a few years ago, Sun got rental for her land which was previously used for farming.

As the family became free from farming work, Sun and her family have time to run their own shop with village support.

Sun has also since moved into a spacious three-story house, which is a stark contrast to her old one-story flat.

She could not stop smiling when speaking about her current life.

"We didn't come out much at night before, because everything was so dark and you could barely see your hands stretch out," she says. The village is now well-lit with a public lighting system.

Its environment has also significantly upgraded due to implementation of garbage classification, which every rural household is abiding by.

"Locals know it is for their own benefit," Liu says.

Currently, the authorities have been inviting companies to invest to further optimize infrastructure and build accommodation facilities.

Village officials will also continue improving tourist experience and create more job opportunities for locals.

The promising tourism prospects have also lured young people back home.

Jin Mengyi decided to come back home to the village and open a photography workshop on the Shantang street.

She had been backpacking across the country after graduating from college and working as a volunteer teacher in the Daliangshan area of Sichuan province.

When she saw the news that the authorities were offering support to locals to set up tourism businesses, she was tempted to see if there were any opportunities.

"Many visitors from even outside the province-like Anhui and Shandong-came during the Labor Day holiday," Jin Mengyi says.

"They like to wear ancient costumes and take photos in the rural setting," she says, adding that it is the best of both worlds as she can stay close to her parents at home.

Speaking about the future, Jin Mengyi hopes her business will be stable soon, so that she can visit the children in Daliangshan from time to time.