Designing cultural tourism destinations in China

Storytelling and sustainability go hand in hand in a village near the Great Wall

VOA’s work in China combines interpretation, place making, and design to create compelling stories that will attract visitors to cultural tourism sites. By focusing on sustainable tourism, we consciously preserve the natural and cultural resources of each project’s location. We look for opportunities for local residents to benefit economically through active participation, added value to the region and ancillary activities. Our work addresses the idea that, increasingly, museums and themed entertainment have much to borrow from each other. Combining educational and entertainment experiences addresses shifting visitor expectations for investments of their leisure and tourism time.

Arriving in China, one is immediately struck by the size and scale of its cities and the appearance of unlimited expansion all around. Orlando is the most visited city in the United States, with approximately 62 million annual visitors from around the world. In contrast, Beijing boasts approximately 65 million people within a 3-hour radius of the city center. The highly mobile Chinese population supports a robust market for cultural tourism. And this market is growing.

VOA is currently engaged in the design for a new gateway destination at Chadao, a village located near the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. Chadao was a fortified defense built prior to the Great Wall. The remnants of other earlier walls are still visible along the hillsides of the surrounding area. The project intends to combine education and entertainment with seamless transportation to the Great Wall, making this the first stop for any visitor to begin their exploration of the area. As a historically significant section of the Great Wall, an anticipated 8-10 million visitors are expected to visit the new gateway destination annually.

We knew from previous experience that simply educating visitors about the Great Wall would not be enough, and that our interpretive focus needed to address how Chadao Village fits into the geography, history and environment of the area. This section of the Great Wall bridges a valley, an ancient trade route from the north to the south. We recognized that this location offers an opportunity for visitors to understand how a series of fortified defenses evolved over time and ultimately culminated in the construction of the Great Wall of China. We felt that visitors would be interested not only in the why, but how the lives of soldiers and villagers intertwined and changed over time in both peace and war.

Chadao Village – Stadium Concept from VOA Associates on Vimeo.

Traditional Chinese villages are dense and organized along narrow streets and alleys. Traditionally, the home looks inward and is organized around a central courtyard. Designing a new destination with an authentic look and feel of life in a 13th century Ming dynasty village is challenging because traditional village plans can’t accommodate the expected number of visitors to the site. Our design preserves historically significant buildings and removes others to develop new open space for entertainment and visitor circulation. These gathering spaces are surrounded by a blend of preserved architecture as well as new buildings that complement the history of the site and culture. In essence, we invite visitors to come to our house to enjoy local hospitality and a village experience.

As the design progresses, we continue to refine the interpretive stories into brand elements to help make them stand apart. The selection of a character-driven approach supports the visitors understanding of life within a fortified defense, exposing the visitor with increasingly deeper levels of content ranging from the character of General Qi to material showing Chadao Village’s place within a larger context of Chinese politics and history.

We typically facilitate workshops as a process to effectively start a project and provide a structured exchange of ideas about the desired visitor experience. Through our work session approach, we create a framework to establish the best decision based on the client’s vision and mission. We found that by helping our clients create a stronger vision of their mission, we were better able to understand what would make each of their projects successful. For instance, a key brand element for this client is that every guest is greeted.  We were able to define this as both gateway and a service level, which we developed further into planning and operational aspects of the project.

Today’s visitors want to explore and learn more about culture, history, and the natural environment. We seek to improve the visitor experience by combining interpretive education with entertainment. Focusing on stories helps us connect today’s visitors with the unique qualities of each destination.We also use interpretation as a means to educate the visitor about the value of these natural and cultural resources and the importance of preserving them for future generations to enjoy. By combining these elements in an authentic and entertaining experience, we deliver on the brand promise established in the mission of our clients.

 A version of this article appears in the International Issue of inpark Magazine.

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