Every inhabited place on earth has a brand image: and plenty of uninhabited ones do too. What does this mean? Simply that for a number of people, the place has a particular image, a reputation. The brand images of countries are important because they powerfully affect the way people inside and outside the country think about it, and the way they behave towards it.
- Simon Anholt, inventor of the "nation branding" concept
Simon Anholt has a very unusual job. He is a policy adviser to numerous national and regional governments about their perceived global image. He advises nations like Bhutan, Iceland and Tanzania about protecting their brand image and enhancing it, "selling" entire countries in much the same way as a corporate spin-doctor might for mega-brands Google or Nike.
It would appear that nation branding works remarkably well. Marketing campaigns with slogans like Amazing Thailand or Incredible India have been highly successful in drawing large numbers of tourists. But some nations have a weak global image—even a negative one that repels tourists. North Korea doesn't exactly pursue the mass tourist market, but perhaps something like Go Ballistic! would suit. For Burma, the catch phrase might be: Just Plain Barbaric!
China sends out mixed signals: a culture with a long history but a poor human rights record. The former is enhanced in ads, and the latter is totally ignored. China is a specialist in rewriting history to suit, with the recent rehabilitation of Confucius, for instance. Confucian temples were sacked during the 1960s and 1970s, but Confucius is now held in great esteem again. This type of re-branding is designed to encourage tourism while waffling about the wise old philosopher-scholar with the long beard.
Dogfights Over Shangri-La
The most audacious tourism re-branding exercise of all time belongs to the wily tourism bureaus of Yunnan, in southwest China. In the mid-1990s, amid much fanfare, it was announced that "scholars" in China had located the real Shangri-La in the vicinity of Zhongdian, in upper Yunnan. Dogfights ensued as rival locations in Yunnan and Sichuan battled over the rights to use the Shangri-La moniker. An avalanche of photo books, CDs, DVDs and other media ensued, replete with hokum cooked up by local tourism authorities bent on forging their claim to being the real Shangri-La. And the winner of this competition was... Zhongdian County, which was renamed Shangri-La County by official decree from Beijing in 2002. Beijing recognizes Shangri-La as a real place that exists on the map, but does not recognize Taiwan as a separate political entity, nor Tibet.
At stake here is money—lots of it—from tourism. Shangri-La made its debut in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon, by British author James Hilton. Hilton waxed lyrical about Shangri-La being a place where time moves very slowly, where lucky residents live to well over a hundred on a regimen of yogic exercises, meditation and herbal medicinal boosters. No worries here—an abundant supply of gold in Shangri-La takes care of any financial concerns.
Shangri-La is a wonderful ready-made concept for branding—paradise encapsulated. The branding has been used to promote countless resorts, restaurants and clubs worldwide. In Yunnan, the sillier the hype, the more impact it seemed to have. Singaporean and Hong Kong tourist agencies lapped up special Shangri-La promotions. The number of incoming tourists skyrocketed. The tourist literature for Shangri-La County plays fast and hard with the landscapes, grafting snowcapped peaks from one end of Yunnan onto a big Tibetan monastery from Zhongdian, 200 kilometers away.
Spirituality Sells, but Sex is Better
James Hilton's novel was big on spirituality; a mix of Taoism, Confucianism, Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism held sway at the lamasery of Shangri-La. Under the present regime, these faiths are repressed. So what is a wily tourism office to do? Hijack the myth. Bend it. It would appear that Shangri-La has been re-packaged in Yunnan: the spirituality has been taken out, and replaced with... sex. Pretty ethnic women, dripping jewelry, are featured on the covers of CDs with titles like Stepping into Shangri-La and Springtime in Shangri-La. Ice maidens with fur hats and colorful Tibetan garb strike come-hither poses on book covers. Attractive Chinese waitresses in bars and restaurants in Zhongdian strut around in ethnic Tibetan dress.
The cues for this may have been taken from the movie version of Lost Horizon, directed by Frank Capra in 1937. Capra decided to spice up Hilton's novel with the addition of a new character—sex-siren Sondra, who appears to have custom-ordered the lead protagonist, Hugh Conway, to be kidnapped and brought by plane to Shangri-La. That throws the story's focus right off: spirituality as motivation and goal is replaced by sexual intrigue and romance. Another character from the book, missionary Roberta Brinklow, is transformed in the movie version into a consumptive American prostitute, Gloria Stone.
A strange physical transformation is in progress at the town of Zhongdian in Yunnan. As it lies at the epicenter of Shangri-La County, Zhongdian has (by default) become known as the town of Shangri-La. But the place is underwhelming. To close the gap between exciting myth and boring reality, local tourism authorities have embarked on a grand scheme to turn the town's old quarter into a kind of Shangri-La theme park, mainly by hawking Shangri-La souvenirs. By night, in the square created in this quarter, ethnic song-and-dance get-togethers have been revived, and are presented as authentic Tibetan cultural performances.
Meanwhile, following a dramatic increase in tourist arrivals, luxury hotels have zeroed in on the quiet backwater of Zhongdian. Easing the digestion at luxury restaurants within is Shangelila Red Wine—made in Yunnan with Hong-Kong backing. The wine is promoted as having links to the vineyards established by 19th-century French missionaries at Cizhong, but conveniently overlooking the fact that a handful of those missionaries were murdered by disgruntled Tibetans at the same spot. Also on offer around Zhongdian is an herbal wine made locally from ginseng, centipedes, lotus-flowers-the list goes on. It is said to be good for curing impotence and other dodgy ailments.
And what other souvenirs can you buy in Shangri-La? Well, souvenir shops are packed with imported items that run the gamut from pashmina scarves to tacky Tibetan trinkets and cowboy hats. And for that special gift, why not buy some yak-tail whisks? Or a yak-skull engraved with a sacred mantra? Or some Chinese caterpillar fungus? This weird variety sprouts in surface soil in the high-altitude grassland regions beyond Zhongdian: it is touted for its aphrodisiac properties, and is reputed to be a powerful antioxidant that can counter numerous ailments. And it is said to have the miraculous power to extend your expiry date—perhaps even longer if you spend extra time in Shangri-La...
Michael Buckley is author of a new guidebook, Shangri-La: A Travel Guide to the Himalayan Dream, which is themed around travel to the Tibetan world—encompassing the most remote regions of southwest China, Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, Nepal and other parts of the Himalayas. For more details, see his website: Himmies.com and the publisher's website bradtguides.com.
All photos © Michael Buckley.
Related stories from the archives, by the author except where indicated:
A Capital Built for Kings and SUVs by Robert Reid
A Railway Runs Through It
Lands of Lost Liberties
Breakfast in Bhutan
Other Asia travel stories from the archives
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