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Nostalgia brings soul to village tourism

GU YAQING and GUO CONG | 2020-11-11 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A tourist visits the "Pigsty tea shop" in Dipu village of Jiangnan Town in Tonglu County, east China's Zhejiang Province. Dipu village is a national historical and cultural village with nearly a thousand years' history, now committed to enviromental reform, village protection and tourism development. Photo: XINHUA

Nostalgia for a fading world of traditional villages in the picturesque countryside is an intrinsically human sentiment. Longing for a return of the past lives in our collective memories, and this bittersweet feeling is stimulated by tangible and intangible heritage. Cultural heritage may include value systems, ethics, literature and art, etiquette, customs, architecture, and even governance methods or institutions. 
Nostalgic travel experiences are not only a type of tourism that needs further exploration, but also an important pathway for rural vitalization. As an innovative way for local cultures to acknowledge their heritage, and an effective way to vitalize villages, this new form of tourism plays an important role in sustaining rural societies, while supporting traditional culture and preserving nostalgic memories. 
From green mountains and riverside farmhouses to local artisans, nostalgic travel experiences could help disrupt the current one-dimensional approach to development, which relies heavily on industrialization and urbanization, strengthening rural culture and building a sense of local identity for villagers and tourists.
Village tourism
Rural tourism has become a key approach to rural vitalization. This type of tourism builds upon a yearning for the fond memories of a simpler past, and promises to alleviate anxieties tied to urbanization and industrialization. Rural tourism seeks to "integrate modern elements, but more importantly, protect and carry forward the best of traditional culture." The effective combination of rural charm and modern comforts makes this type of tourism the ideal outlet for Chinese people's nostalgia. Generally speaking, rural tourism refers to tourism that features idyllic rural scenery, traditional architecture and lively local culture. Nostalgia then lives in traditional villages, rural memories and within this pastoral cultural inheritance.
With the endless march toward urbanization, it is inevitable that some villages are vanishing, but it does not mean that villages in China will disappear completely. Villages here share a long history of hundreds or even thousands of years. Some villages have accumulated rich family histories, ancestral traditions and folk customs, representing the intimate knowledge of several generations. 
People are drawn to the history, but also the natural landscape. Mountains, rivers, lakes, agreeable climates, and unique local vegetation are all fundamentally appealing for nostalgic tourists. Traditional architecture, involving natural materials, historic forms of folk dwellings, and traditional construction techniques, also attract visitors. 
For example, Dipu village in Tonglu County, east China's Zhejiang Province, is home to a range of ancient houses, wells, paper-making sites, pigsties, cow sheds, and ancestral temples, family tree plaques, filial piety memorial archways, as well as traditional household utensils and agricultural tools, all of which serves to record and continue Chinese people's sentimental feelings toward the old days. 
In recent years, the government has joined with villagers in various rural tourist destinations throughout the country to protect traditional culture and ancient buildings, restoring and collecting previously-used objects, and reviving many cultural relics.
Now, tourists rely on pastoral tourism to relive their rural memories by experiencing a farmers' way of life. The collected experiences they can choose from include returning to an immersive environment of local dialects, reviving long-lost dining habits, participating in farmhouse production and reliving childhood memories. These collections preserve rural customs and lifestyles, specific farming methods, and craft food production. Pastoral tourism is also preserving physical remains of old farming tools, such as ploughs, harrows and hoes, and collecting photo records of rural scenery, all with the hope of restoring original scenes from the past.
Finally, rural literature and folk customs carry on the legacy of rural culture. Rural literature consists of essays and poems written by local literati and townsfolk, reflecting upon the change of times. It also includes nostalgic sentiments written down by the villagers or passed on to the villagers. These records are both extensive and rich, including prose, poetry, legends, dialects, proverbs, music and stories, which are popular and widely spread among the people.
Echo of the past
Traditional villages are favored by entrepreneurs who appreciate the rich natural landscape and unique architectural styles, and want to engage in rural tourism. These entrepreneurs have become important advocates for nostalgic culture. As of today, a wide variety of homestay inns and farmhouses have been developed in China's rural areas. They have become popular locations for tourists to recall their memories of the past and appreciate the beauty of the countryside. 
At present, entrepreneurs working on rural tourism are mainly divided into two categories: local farmers and micro-enterprises, and outside investors. Due to the differences in backgrounds, some entrepreneurs have yet to take full advantage of nostalgic culture. Others fail to meet tourists' customer service needs due to a lack of professionalism, modern management training, or the lack of local input when developing rural tourism projects.
In addition to homestay inns, pastoral tourism experiences, open-air rural (agricultural) museums and cultural spaces are common forms of rural tourism. This experience-based tourism exhibits and activates the folk customs and intangible cultural heritage, so that tourists can temporarily escape the stress of the city and enjoy experiences like reading poems around a campfire, picking fresh vegetables, looking for eggs and milking goats on farms.
Studies suggest that among the cultural elements of pastoral tourism, tourists are most impressed by the traditional architectural style, followed by the natural landscape, and then local stories and anecdotes. An interesting phenomenon has been observed: While tourists hope to see villages that maintain an original architectural style, they are reluctant to try a rural accommodation experience. Tourists look for physical and mental relaxation in rural tourism, but they also want more of a unique experience and reject the uniformity that comes from modernized and commercialized rural construction.
Innovative development
Going forward, governments and entrepreneurs should highlight the maintenance and improvement of historic architecture, modern roads, and the natural landscape, to attract tourists to experience nostalgia in an interactive way and meet their cultural needs. A static display of rural culture might not be enticing to tourists, so efforts must be made to protect and activate intangible cultural resources, such as local folklore, folk art, legends and stories, traditional handicrafts and other important carriers of nostalgic memory. 
In rural tourism, the key is to strengthen people's identification and solidarity with a specific place, giving them pride in their homeland, while offering a sentimental experience to tourists. 
Tourists may feel nostalgia when watching the distant mountains, in small bridges with flowing water, with one chair in a villager's house, a piece of music or a specific flavor. Homestay inns, costumes, handicrafts, agricultural cultivation, folk festivals could remind tourists of the farming culture, traditional rural lifestyle, and agricultural ecological resources, thus forming a tourist scenic spot with combined modern and traditional elements.
In reality, such an effective integration of past and present is not easy to achieve. If entrepreneurs want to maintain the original and natural state of the countryside, they need to incorporate traditional social and cultural factors into the innovative planning and development of pastoral tourism. 
At present, the modern design of some homestay inns not only destroy the original architectural style of traditional houses, but also wipe out the nostalgic elements. In the future, it is vital for rural planners, managers, entrepreneurs and tourism outlets to take into account local conditions, carry out reasonable planning and careful verification, and create rural tourism projects with local characteristics.
Last but not least, more efforts should be made to build a good coordination mechanism, improving operation and management levels, perfecting the system in order to promote the orderly operation and collaborative development of rural tourism, form a healthy cycle for collaborative exploration of tourism resources, and expand the industrial value. 
Gu Yaqing and Guo Cong are from the Qianjiang College at Hangzhou Normal University.
Edited by YANG XUE