Chris Barclay on the Importance of Cultural Heritage Tourism

By Sophie Steiner, November 4, 2020

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In 2011, longtime American entrepreneur in China Chris Barclay came to Shaxi, a beautifully preserved town nestled deep in the Himalayan foothills halfway between Dali and Lijiang, Yunnan. These quiet cobblestone streets date back to the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail, a trade route connecting China to Tibet and beyond for over a thousand years.

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After unsuccessfully conceiving a child following the death of their only child, Barclay and his wife, a devout Buddhist, prayed to the Guan Yin fertility goddess in Shaxi’s Sheltered Mercy Nunnery (also known as the Shaxi Pear Orchard Temple), and soon after she became pregnant.

The Barclays committed then and there to restore the temple, along with the Old Theatre Inn, strengthening their deep-rooted personal connection with this already sacred place. We caught up with Barclay to hear his fascinating story.

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How did you get into hospitality?
By accident! I owned a Guangzhou-based training company from the mid-90s for 12 years. Part of it was teambuilding and leadership development, where we spent a lot of time in Yangshuo for hiking on weekends. 

At the time, Yangshuo was very undeveloped, so I got the idea to rent some land from the local village, and build a retreat there for our teambuilding and training events. The Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, now nearly 20 years old, still exists today, where we host some service learning projects and welcome travelers from across the world. See more here.

Why is the Shaxi Old Theatre Inn different from others in the area?
The Shaxi Old Theatre Inn is not only a fabulous listed building, but a much needed retreat from China’s breakneck development. And at mealtimes it becomes a foodies' paradise. The converted schoolhouse building has just five guest rooms, each with a cosy western en-suite, slate tile rain shower and large clerestory windows to soak up the warm winter sun. Alongside this is a main dining area, where guests can sample the best in Bai cuisine and yummy Western comfort food.

The centerpiece is the temple theater building, an opera stage and shrine to the God of Culture built in the early Qing Dynasty, fully restored as part of the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project (SRP). The ground floor is storage space for mountain bikes, so that visitors can head off and explore the valley. This leads out to the stage area, where the traditions of Bai music are being revived, and local elders perform for visiting dinner guests.

With its expansive views across the rice fields, this is the ideal location to relax on the front terrace with a freshly brewed Yunnan coffee and watch the sun sink slowly behind the Hengduan Mountains. 

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What are you most excited for guests to experience at Shaxi Old Theatre Inn?
Despite the intricately carved construction, the hefty sandstone flagstones and the bucolic rural location, Old Theatre Inn has all the modern comforts needed to keep city folk happy. Twenty four-hour broadband wireless internet, lovely English-speaking Bai local village staff, complimentary Western breakfasts and private car pick-ups all mean that guest comfort is in no way compromised by the tranquil, rural setting. Travelers from all over the world repeatedly confirm that a visit the Old Theatre Inn is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

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How does the Old Theatre Inn differ from other ‘boutique’ hotels in China?
Both the Old Theatre and the nunnery are active temples; people come to worship there – there are dances and ceremonies regularly. Obviously we don’t want to spoil that. It’s a tricky, fine line to walk between a commercial interest and a religious site.

There are a handful of foreigners in China, like Jim Spear or the Lindens in Dali, who have done a great job of turning old buildings into hotels. I think the Old Theatre Inn is different in that it’s a living temple. People still come to pray to the God of Culture for their children to get good grades, so this is quite different from other places where guests aren’t actively involved in the day-to-day.

Also, the Inn is run entirely by local women, sharing their lives and the community feel with guests. There are no foreigners or city people running it. Although service might not be perfect, at least it’s real, which is harder and harder to find now in China. 

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How has travel in Yunnan developed over the last few years?
Yunnan developed around mass tourism – more highways, more trains, more people – and not a lot of regard for historical preservation or cultural conservation. Instead, it’s a ‘Disney-ification’ of certain minority group areas.

We have seen the local governments give a Chinese interpretation of what that minority culture is, so you are left with a ‘sanitized’ version of the culture instead of the real thing. People dress up in the local clothes and pose for pictures in front of temples, and that isn’t what tourism should be about.

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What is ‘cultural heritage tourism,’ and how does Shaxi Old Theatre Inn fit within that category?
Cultural heritage tourism is traveling to experience a place, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the people, both past and present, that live there. It is a form of traveling that focuses less on indulgence and more on authenticity and honoring cultural, historical and natural resources.

The Shaxi Old Theatre Inn restoration started as a side project while we worked on the three year-long restoration process of the nunnery. As we refurbished both of these places (less than two kilometers apart), we wanted to ensure that we were still promoting Shaxi village culture. Both places now serve as models for cultural heritage conservation in the promotion of sustainable development. 

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To contact Shaxi Old Theatre Inn or book a room, scan the QR code below or visit their website here

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[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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