The Great Wall of China doesn’t need Hollywood to remain one of the world’s wonders. But stampedes of Chinese tourists still threaten an edifice that northern armies failed to conquer.
We started with regular reports several times per month from tourism hubs Beijing, Singapore and Capetown. Gateway Beijing and Gateway Singapore, for example, signify that the reporters are writing from those cities although their coverage of the business of travel will meander to other locales in their regions. Read about the series here, and check out all the stories in the series here.
Three spring weekends saw stampedes at the Great Wall, China’s most iconic monument.
In fact, these holidays, while they’ve existed on the Chinese calendar for decades, if not centuries, were codified specifically to give all 1,500 or so miles of the Great Wall and other national heritage and natural areas a break.
There’s a saying in Chinese that “If you don’t see the Great Wall, you are not a good man (or good Chinese),” depending on which translation you accept. That’s a marketing slogan that Beijing’s Forbidden City, Chengdu’s panda preserves, and the Tibetan Plateau can’t beat.
The February release of the film The Great Wall focused attention on the massive defensive artifice, even though the film was not shot on location – in fairness the wall in the film is designed to keep out some very nasty, mythical monsters, rather than simple warriors from the north.
However, the China-Hollywood co-production renewed interest in the actual Wall, and raised the question: how great is the Wall still, as a tourist destination?
“From my own experience, interest in what I do on the Wall just gets greater and greater,” said William Lindesay, who has built his life and business, The Barracks, on and around the Wall over the past 30 years, guiding dignitaries, photographers, and other travelers.
“In early January I released a two-minute video of drone footage that showed the many diverse faces and locations of the Wall,” Lindesay said. “It was the most watched BBC video that day and even hovered in second and third places on the ‘top stories’ page. This global reception of a new view of the Wall, from the air, is just one example of the Wall’s charisma and ability to inspire awe in all who see it.”
Unlike other monuments, the Great Wall’s length gives it an advantage: There’s plenty to go around. The locations closest to Beijing see the most traffic because they are the most accessible.
On a good day, one can zip out to the Badaling section – older readers will remember it was featured in the intro to ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” – in under an hour, walk the bricks, and then be back in town in time for a late lunch.
Hipsters and purists will eschew this section for “better” sections developed for tourism, including Mutianyu, and the steeper Simatai and Jinshanling areas.
Other cities and provinces in China take advantage of the Wall as it snakes its way through their territory, providing much-needed tourism revenues in otherwise underdeveloped areas. Many of these spots are what Lindesay refers to, using a term he coined, “Wild Wall.”
“New customers visiting the Wall are often quite discerning and shun the gated sites where the Wall has been rebuilt. And botched-up so called reconstruction projects, the likes of which hit the headlines every now and then do nothing to interest the growing middle class and mobile sector of the Chinese people. That why ‘Wild Wall’ has become so popular. Because it’s the real Wall on the eyes of many,” Lindesay said.
Although the Great Wall as we know it is a series of fortified construction projects undertaken by numerous Chinese dynasties, the Wall is so large that estimating the number of annual visitors is itself a challenge.
The Badaling section alone is believed annually to get 10 million visitors, including some holidays when hundreds of thousands may storm up it – a bit much even for a fortification designed to allow four horses to ride shoulder-to-shoulder atop it.
The Global Heritage Fund estimated in 2010 that 24 million visitors, domestic and international, visited all areas of the Wall combined.
Like so many aspects of China’s tourism industry, management of the Wall is like the structure itself: fragmented and uneven. While the China Relics Bureau officially oversees the Wall on a national level, ground-level management falls to the numerous cities, counties, and towns, through which it runs.
Many of those small enclaves are in arid, mountainous, or otherwise less than optimum areas of northern China, some of which not long ago used the Wall as a source of building materials in lieu of being it a source of tourism revenue.
Demand for the Wall also seems unstoppable. Unlike Beijing’s Forbidden City, the world’s largest palace complex, which has capped daily visitor numbers at 80,000, no such plan has been floated to control the numbers, and ultimately, the damage, caused by uncontrolled tourism.
The Wall now sees diverse tourism usage, including hang-gliding and parasailing off of it, helicopter flights over it, and even scuba diving under and around it. However, this usage is limited, due to ongoing concerns about misuse of and damage to the country’s largest cultural artifact.
And by the way, no, the Great Wall isn’t visible from space.
Disclosure: Steven Schwankert is the founder of SinoScuba, which offers occasional commercial scuba diving trips to the Great Wall of China.
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Photo Credit: The release of the Hollywood film, "The Great Wall," which was not filmed in China, has sparked new interest in the Great Wall of China, which was already overrun with tourists even before the film. Tourists visit the Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing, in this October 3, 2014 photo. Reuters