Teaming with rural culture

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) – A corporate tourism entrepreneur is confident that his countryside idyll will soon see green shoots of post-outbreak recovery.

Love of Chinese language, rural scenery and vernacular building preservation has seen Chris Barclay develop a rural tourism business in China.

Since early March, the 54-year-old from the United States once again started receiving guests at his retreat in Yangshuo, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

Local government has allowed tourism operators to resume business with certain requirements since Feb 17, as the novel coronavirus outbreak has been brought under control locally.

“We have always had hand sanitiser at reception, and have added more bottles to the staff canteen, kitchen and public toilets,” Barclay says, adding that he also uses bleach to clean public areas and guest rooms, a practice he started during SARS and has kept up ever since.

“As of March 1, all our staff had returned,” he says. “I do not expect a surge immediately, but more like a gradual return to average occupancy over the next three months.”

An Asian studies major in college, Barclay “wanted to experience the country”, and first visited China in an immersion language program in Beijing in 1988. He had a great time in the six months, and visited Henan, Hebei and Shanxi provinces, besides Beijing.

“Everything agreed with me. I really enjoyed biking around Beijing, the food and travel,” he recalls. “People were humorous, simple and friendly.

“It was my love affair with Beijing. I grew increasingly familiar with the roads and local habits seemed to come naturally to me.”

The experience saw him return to China immediately upon graduating from college. His first job was at the US embassy, before he later took a job in human resources with a European hotel group in Beijing, which gave him “some insights into cross-cultural communication, problem solving in joint ventures and training in the service industry”.

Through his experience in hospitality, he realised that there was an opportunity to work with foreign companies in China to improve team performance, particularly across cultures, “helping Chinese staff of all levels to be more effective in Western organisations, but also for foreigners in these companies be more effective managers”. Then he started a training business in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, in 1996.

Barclay chose places like Sanya, Lijiang, Suzhou and other travel destinations to do team building events for the foreign companies he served. To improve the experience for them, he brought the teams out of the conference room and closer to nature.

Barclay often travelled with his friends up to rural areas in Yangshuo to go rock climbing, swim in the Yulong River and run the trails.

The traveller was also charmed by local farmers, who live in basic conditions, but are nonetheless very generous to a group of strangers.

“We stopped in many villages and shared experiences with local people,” he recalls. “In every situation, we were greeted by smiles and offers of fruit from their trees, a pot of tea or invited into their homes to get out of the rain.”

A natural progression

Barclay was so impressed with the areas that he would like to bring over his corporate clients, “except that there was no suitable accommodation”. The idea struck him to fill that gap in the market, building a place in the Yulong River Valley in 2000, about 9 kilometres from downtown Yangshuo.

“It was fallow land, right near the river, surrounded by paddy fields that all frequently flooded,” Barclay says.

After discussions with local government leaders, he created the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat and began bringing clients to the area.

“We offer guests a close experience with nature,” Barclay says, adding that no disposable items are used.

“We filter and sterilise drinking water ourselves and use glass containers.”

Local government has also been very supportive. “They invested a lot in afforestation and road building,” Barclay says.

The retreat became a popular team building destination, and to his pleasant surprise, an increasing number of the participants came back with their families. So the retreat slowly became a full-time hospitality business.

To date, the place takes in about 15,000 guests a year.

“I’m most proud of the way that we kept our promise to help develop village tourism along the Yulong River, and especially in encouraging the creation of the Ten-mile Gallery scenic spot, which restricts building and traffic in this ecologically sensitive area,” he says.

Barclay later restored an old mud-brick house and repurposed a local village building as a boutique hotel in the neighborhood, which he says gave him an insight into traditional building reconstruction. Through this work he started learning more about Chinese vernacular architecture.

His new passion had him engage in repairing a historical temple in Shaxi town, south-western Yunnan province, in 2012, a place he and his wife deemed auspicious. Having previously visited the temple only once, shortly after they had lost their baby girl due to a serious liver problem, the couple conceived their second child later that year.

Their daughter’s birth led him back to the temple “to return a favour”.

“I realised this temple required a lot of major repairs, so I began working with a local team to rebuild it from the ground up.”

In the process, Barclay was staying at a small family guesthouse across the valley, and he became friends with the owner, giving him many suggestions on how to improve his business.

The owner then suggested Barclay take over management of the property, which also required a lot of restoration needing traditional building expertise.

They agreed a deal and, once the temple was completed, they renovated and opened the Old Theatre Inn in Shaxi. The inn has only five rooms, based around a theater temple that is over 250 years old.

Barclay then tapped into local traditional Bai ethnic dance and music and developed shows for his guests, as well as home cooked meals.

Speaking about his future plans, Barclay says he’d like to explore more opportunities with similar projects.

“I believe that China presents some of the best opportunities for vernacular building preservation, especially in the area of cultural tourism,” he says.

At the moment, he is working on a new tourism project in Meixian county, Guangdong province.

“It has everything I’m interested in-tourism, culture and antique restoration,” he says.

“Having been in China for over 30 years, and as a fluent Mandarin speaker, I feel I have a lot to contribute in China and that my contributions are welcomed.”


No photos has been attached.