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Ashild Kolas, Tourism and Tibetan Culture in Transition: A Place Called Shangrila, 2008.

Jenny Chio reviews the book for H-Travel, November 2008, credit H-Asia.
January 1, 2008

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Ashild Kolas. Tourism and Tibetan Culture in Transition: A Place Called Shangrila. London  Routledge, 2008.  xii + 154 pp.  $150.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-43436-2.

Reviewed by Jenny Chio
Published on H-Travel (November, 2008)

What's in a Name?

The renaming of Zhongdian County in northwest Yunnan Province, China, to "Shangrila" in 2002 has been the subject of much attention from Chinese and Western press, including an initial scholarly article on the subject in 2003 by Ben Hillman.[1] Ashild Kolas's book-length study of the social, political, economic, and cultural impacts of the name change and the concomitant government-sponsored tourism development initiatives in the region is an interesting, detailed read on Tibetan cultural responses to these recent events. Kolas also engages in a more general discussion of familiar, yet unresolved, questions of authenticity, cultural preservation, and negotiation of ethnic identities. On the last point, Kolas offers an important perspective on the need to understand the various agents involved in renegotiations of ethnicity in tourism. She ties ethnicity to the place now called "Shangrila" by examining how Zhongdian County was reinvented as specifically Tibetan; and subsequently, how Tibetan culture was represented as a marketable tourist commodity in this particular location, which is by no means culturally homogenous.

Overall, this book is a useful case study of tourism and cultural change in a part of China well known in tourist itineraries--indeed, all the more so because of recent political tensions in the neighboring Tibet Autonomous Region. Kolas is closely familiar with the area, local history, and its communities. Readers may want to seek out additional
background reading on ethnic minority politics in China (Kolas's bibliography references most major recent publications) to supplement this study. The book's real contribution comes in the presentation of empirical data linking traditional
Tibetan pilgrimage routes and sacred sites to Communist Party political agendas and to current tourism development in the region.

In particular, her discussion of the semantic debates over the place-names "Shangrila"/"Shambhala" draws together the complex of political longings, economic imperatives, and cultural continuities that mark tourism's complexity in the modern world. Roughly, according to Kolas, "Shambhala" refers to a utopian "vision of a future where Buddhism prevails, and where all struggle, conflict and suffering have been eliminated," and it "has come to stand for a vision of Tibet shaped by the concerns of contemporary Tibetans" (pp. 117, 119). Therefore, as her research demonstrates, for local
Tibetans, the term "Shambhala" resonates more deeply with the name "Shangrila" for local Tibetans because of their mutual reference to utopian visions. However, precisely because "Shambhala" is so deeply rooted in a Tibetan Buddhist myth, the application of the name to a real place threatens to disrupt the spiritual and political importance of utopian imaginaries. As one of her interviewees explained, "Shambhala is not the same as Shangrila....Shambhala is in this world, but it's in the future, it's an ideal to strive for" (117-118). (Nevertheless, the name "Shambhala" has been used by locals to promote community tourism through an organization called the Shambhala Folk Environment Protection Association, who also maintain a Shambhala Folk Nature Reserve [p. 22]). Naming an actual place "Shambhala" would threaten to strip away the symbolic significance of the place as an ideal for local Tibetans, while "Shangrila" maintains enough reference to this ideal to render the actual place more spiritually significant than when it was called "Zhongdian," a Chinese term. Kolas thus effectively argues for the need to understand local responses to and contradictions within national projects, which, in this case, demonstrates the spiritual, cultural "afterlife" of ethnic tourism discourse and practices.

A few issues raised by the book illuminate themes worth considering in greater depth. More theoretical engagement in her analysis of naming and mapping (which is the topic of chapter 5) would have allowed for a broader discussion of how tourism imaginaries renegotiate political and social realities, and possibly would have opened the way to comparative studies of cultural tourism practices in other countries. And while Kolas's intent is not to provide a policy analysis or suggestions for practical implementation, given the concentration of international development organizations in this part of China, her conclusion opens a range of questions. She writes, on the one hand, that "tourism may rather heighten senses of community and identity, as new meanings of 'culture' are negotiated and new notions of 'place' are made real. On the other hand, tourism may also heighten tensions between and within communities as people compete for profits and recognition" (p. 129). This leaves the reader with the desire to understand more concretely the potential of tourism studies to address such new meanings, notions, and tensions through dialogue with various stakeholders, including the government, private enterprises, local households, and international agencies.

Chapter 2 details the move to promote tourism in this relatively underdeveloped region from the perspectives of the local government, private investment companies, and local families. The role of privatized businesses in developing tourism regions and resources in places like Shangrila is a significant area of study for those wanting to understand the current shape of tourism in China, and Kolas's description of the Heavenly Mountains and Waters Tourism Development Company helps to shed light on the complicated relationships between private enterprises and government bureaus in tourism development projects. She also notes the increasing influence of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the area, including well-publicized accounts of activities by the Nature Conservancy in bringing global attention to the area and contributing to social and cultural changes within the local Tibetan community.[2]

Rather than dismissing Shangrila as fake or inauthentic, in chapter 3, Kolas usefully reminds her readers that "it is more important to ask how Shangrila is made real, by different actors, employing different discursive strategies, drawing on different contexts and references" (p.36). Her knowledge of the local Tibetan language spoken in the area, alongside her grasp of relevant myths, symbols, stories, and beliefs, helps anchor her claims about the ways in which the name "Shangrila" has come to resonate meaningfully among government officials, developers, and local Tibetans alike.

The empirical contribution and strength of this book begins with chapter 4, which analyzes sacred spaces in the Tibetan, Communist, and modern tourists' worldviews. This chapter illustrates how traditional Tibetan pilgrimage routes and sites (in the county that was called Gyalthang, or "victory plain" by the local Tibetan population) were "re-territorialized" by the early Chinese Communist state and given the Chinese name Zhongdian, meaning "middle pasture," until 2002 when the name was officially changed to Shangrila, in reference to James Hilton's 1949 novel Lost Horizon about a lost utopia. This process of making a place-name meaningful to certain audiences and agendas reveals the twists and turns of politics and tourism, especially in chapter 5, where Kolas argues that rather than de-sacralizing holy sites due to tourism-driven commercialism, it, in fact, "is providing a new frame of reference for locals of Shangrila to understand, and explain, sacred sites" (p. 76). The re-sacralization of such places, like monasteries and holy mountains, operates alongside the re-politicization of ethnic identities in Shangrila tourism, which is the topic of chapter 6.

Chapter 7 raises the important point that "tourism in Shangrila generates many opportunities [or requirements, in some  cases] to represent the local 'culture,'" which, in this case, means Tibetan culture, to the disadvantage of the other ethnic groups living and working in the area (p. 107). Between "neo-Tibetan" architectural styles and the haphazard placement of monuments, such as stupas, in the city center, the tourist's vision of a lost utopia, themed in a Tibetan style, is literally being constructed. Kolas describes Shangrila as the fulfillment of urban Chinese nostalgia for "places where 'simple people live in harmony with nature'" (p. 107). One strategy used to keep tourists and their actions in check is therefore an emphasis on "framing of tourism as pilgrimage," thus tapping into popular knowledge about Tibetan religious practices and common social mores about respectful behavior in spiritually significant places (p. 126).

Kolas concludes, somewhat hurriedly, that "tourist destinations are inevitably 'dreamscapes' of tourist consumption" (p. 128). While it is certainly true that tourists impart on destinations their own visions of fantasy and reality, further research in this area might want to turn this argument around to consider how tourism might have, or have not, created a "dreamscape" of Shangrila for the residents as well, from the local communities to the migrant workers who have moved in to take advantage of the new market and opportunities. By so doing, tourism research might begin to more fully integrate multiple stakeholder perspectives on social change and economic development.


[1]. Ben Hillman, "Paradise under Construction: Minorities, Myths and Modernity in Northwest Yunnan," Asian Ethnicity 4, no. 2 (2003): 175-188.

[2]. Ralph Litznger, "The Mobilization of 'Nature': Perspectives from North-west Yunnan," The China Quarterly 178 (2004): 488-504.

Citation: Jenny Chio. Review of Kolas, Ashild, Tourism and Tibetan Culture in Transition: A Place Called Shangrila. H-Travel, H-Net Reviews. November, 2008.

Other articles and documents on Tibet:

Fifty Years of Democratic Reform in Tibet | Kolas, Tourism and Tibetan Culture in Transition: A Place Called Shangrila | PRC Officials Discuss Tibet Situation with USC Scholars and Students | Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy | Testimony on ‘The Crisis in Tibet: Finding a Path to Peace | Tibet: Problems, Prospects, and U.S. Policy | The Way to Resolve the Tibet Issue | President Obama Meets with the Dalai Lama | On the 'Memorandum' of the Dalai clique | Beijing-Based G-5 Chiefs of Mission on DPRK, GTMO, Uighurs, Sino-Japan Relations, Dalai Lama |