Rural area shining example of development
Tourists visit the homestay resort in Hengshanwu village of Anji county, Zhejiang province, on June 5, 2023. [Photo by Zhang Wei/For chinadaily.com.cn]
An architect in Zhejiang province wanted to breathe new life into his almost deserted hometown - Hengshanwu village. This desire is what led him to decide to turn his village into a homestay resort.
"I am a returnee, and people here call me village chief," Chen Gu told a group of visitors as he showed them around his brainchild Villa & Resort, a cluster of homestays, cafes and nightclubs tucked away in the rugged mountains of Anji county.
The 52-year-old pointed to an outdoor billboard illustrating the project. It carried a selection of photos reminiscent of the village's past: muddy dirt roads, garbage pileups, stinky waterways and bare hilltops due to mining activities from more than 20 years ago.
"It was once a 'hollowed village'," he said, referring to the exodus of younger people that has beset many rural communities across China.
"When I took over the village in 2012, just a few older residents were left."
Despite the downsides, the village resides at a place that is within three hours' drive from most major cities in Zhejiang, as well as in its neighbors Jiangsu province and Shanghai. The newly built highways and tunnels as part of a province-wide campaign to foster urban-rural equalities in recent decades make travel possible.
The geography has underpinned Chen's design: he envisioned a hideaway serving urbanites who wish for a two-night respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.
A graduate from a renowned fine art school in Beijing and longtime freelance architect before returning to Anji in 2005, Chen said he was not a fan of bulldozing everything and starting from scratch. He has a fondness for the beauty of rural landscape, where building materials for homes, such as stones and timbers, are mostly sourced locally and blend into the environment.
He worked with a State-owned tourism company to buy the stand-alone farmhouses from villagers and moved their former owners to a nearby community.
Chen carried out a thorough evaluation of the 20 homes, renovated most of them for safety and aesthetic considerations, but largely kept their original looks. He also built some more to bolster the reception capacity.
Advertisements were posted to recruit "tenants" to run businesses inside the farmhouses, such as homestays, restaurants and dress shops, and also venues including a library and a swimming pool.
A photo shows a resident of a digital nomad community working on her computer in Yu village of Anji county, Zhejiang province, on June 5, 2023. [Photo by Zhang Wei/For chinadaily.com.cn]
Chen screened and ended up with 35 business owners, who are from a mix of regions, from the inland city of Xi'an to Hong Kong.
"We helped them design and decorate their businesses and offered training courses," he said, adding that the tenants pay rent and hand in a part of their revenue in return.
"Here you can have almost every cuisine, from Chinese to Western to Japanese," he said.
With an aim to provide an immersive experience, Chen bundles the services on offer into tourism packages and visitors can buy them in a lump sum.
For example, parents taking one child along can follow the designed route and first have a lunch at a waterfront restaurant – formerly a farmhouse by a fish pond – and then check into a nearby homestay. Then they get a ticket for an afternoon dessert at a cafe, where people can also read and work. Children can be sent to take handwork courses or follow an instructor to learn about the plants in a nearby tea plantation.
"The package sold at 1,899 yuan last year, and we are rolling out more packages this summer," he said.
Last year, Villa & Resort received more than 350,000 visitors, with its revenue hitting 67 million yuan ($9.4 million).
A girl rides on a pony in Hengshanwu village of Anji county, Zhejiang province, on June 5, 2023. [Photo by Zhang Wei/For chinadaily.com.cn]
The resort is a shining example of the shift by rural areas in Zhejiang province to pursue sustainable development.
In the early 2000s – when Xi Jinping was the then-Party secretary of Zhejiang – the Green Rural Revival Program was launched province-wide to improve rural living environment. In the decades that followed, the program has morphed and expanded to curb the urban-rural gap in a range of areas such as income and public services.
Now the coastal province is among the wealthiest places in China with the narrowest urban-rural wealth gap. The blurred urban-rural boundary in the coastal Zhejiang province is drawing people back to the scenic countryside, creating business opportunities.
Standing outside a stylish eatery selling a range of Japanese food from sushi to Salmon Sashimi, Chen noted that it was once a hog pen – a metaphor for the province's own transformation.
"During the May Day holiday, it alone raked in 40,000 yuan," he said.