Rural tourism and the reconstruction of rural identity in China

Open Access
Xue, Lan
Graduate Program:
Recreation and Parks
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 07, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Deborah Lee Kerstetter, Dissertation Advisor
  • Deborah Lee Kerstetter, Committee Chair
  • Garry Chick, Committee Member
  • Carter A Hunt, Committee Member
  • Anouk Patel, Committee Member
  • rural tourism; rural-urban divide; identity; rural performance;
Tourism has become a worldwide phenomenon and an increasingly recognized tool for regional development, especially in remote and underdeveloped areas (Fleischer & Felsenstein, 2000). In China, tourism development has been used as a pro-poor strategy by local government to diminish poverty and increase the living standards of rural residents (Su, 2001). Although the economic and social aspects of rural tourism development have been widely examined and debated, little attention has been paid to the impact of rural tourism development on the cultural construct of rural life (i.e., residents’ rural identities). In this study I explored the role of tourism development in changing rural identities in the context of China, which has been experiencing rapid urbanization and rural reconstructing processes in recent years. To understand the features of local residents’ rural identity change and its underlying mechanism, I conducted a case study in Chongdu Valley, a popular and pioneering rural tourist destination in the middle of China from June to August 2014. Through the collection of on-site materials, participant observation, and individual interviews, my study: 1) examined the patterns of local residents’ rural identity changes and the underlying reasons behind the changes; 2) explored the detailed transformation of everyday life and performance of rural residents, and how it has influenced the mentality and identity of Chongdu Valley residents; and 3) compared and contrasted different discourses on tourism development issues and their implications for community power relations. The results indicated that rural identities in Chongdu Valley did experience changes over the course of tourism development. The changes included recognition of the good associated with living a rural life, a change in residents’ perspectives from rural-urban inequality to rural-urban difference, and a rise in community identity. These changes can be attributed to the shift in national government policies towards rural populations and the local economic and environmental changes brought by tourism development. Daily interaction between rural residents and urban tourists also helped to reconstruct rural identities as it either reinforced or diminished rural-urban differences. The results also indicated that tourism has provided local residents with an alternative way of living that has greatly changed their life as a rural resident. They have developed a new rural identity from being a farmer to being a businessperson (Bye, 2009). As their experiences accumulated, they were able to acquire a new set of skills, which included, but were not limited to, external networking, marketing, cooking, room service, house and room design, and managing debt. Non-work related activities and mentalities with respect to leisure, consumption, and education were also explored as they were directly influenced by residents’ changes in livelihood. My analysis also revealed that, in spite of congruence on issues of destination image and overall development outcomes, the local community and the private company that is in charge of Chongdu Valley management, presented conflicting discourses, and thus divergent values, theories, and attitudes towards a range of community and tourism development issues. The private company, which occupies an influential and dominant position when it comes to decision making and strategy implementation, is dealing with the issues in its own way, but it may not take long for residents to challenge the authority of the private company. Further, without community participation, Chongdu Valley faces environmental degradation and growing problems with inequality. The findings of the study enrich the tourism field’s understanding of the cultural impacts of rural tourism development on local communities, especially related to identity change and reconstruction. Through examining residents’ changing rural identity, this study provides insight to the rural-urban relationship in China and how it is being transformed along with the ongoing process of rural restructuring. Theoretically, the study contributes to existing knowledge of the intersection of tourism and identity by focusing on a less conventional setting in which identity is constructed by multiple forces instead of only cultural difference. Methodologically, the study introduces the framework of rural performance to the tourism field and discourse analysis to community tourism research. Practically, the study renders managerial and political implications for practitioners who work with community tourism and tourism development in rural areas.