How to understand young people in today’s China by looking at China’s “Utopia city”?
Understand how tourism drives the economy of Dali City, Yunnan Province through young Chinese's pastoral escape
If you were to ask an average young Chinese person where their dream utopia would be, a place to escape their tiring 996 lifestyle (which refers to working from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week), perhaps a considerable number of them would mention Dali city in the Yunnan Province. This ancient town is located in remote southwestern China, by the shore of the Erhai Lake, and is embraced by the majestic Cangshan mountain range.
The city of Dali, now part of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture and home to the Bai ethnic minority group, served as the medieval capital of the Bai Kingdom Nanzhao and the Kingdom of Dali. The ancient town of Dali always evokes a peaceful and poetic life — an ideal paradise on earth that is isolated from the hustle and bustle, with beautiful and pastoral scenery, and everlasting spring and flowers. Chinese people grow up watching TV shows and reading literature that depict this image of Dali. Liping Yang, a world-renowned dancer, decided to establish her personal mansion in her hometown of Dali city. This mansion has since been transformed into an art hotel that provides breathtaking views of Erhai Lake and Cangshan Mountain. The scenery looks like this:
In recent years, there has been an increasing number of Chinese people discussing "裸辞去大理" (quitting jobs and going to Dali) on Xiaohongshu, China's largest lifestyle social media platform. In 2023, the TV series "去有风的地方 There is Wind" gained popularity. The show features Xu Hongdou, a hotel manager in Beijing (portrayed by Chinese-American actress Yifei Liu), who takes a trip to Dali while facing personal and professional challenges. The TV series became a blockbuster, creating a sensation in China. It sparked increased tourism in Dali and attracted many young Chinese individuals seeking an escape from their mundane lives (including myself).
I visited Wenbi village in October, which is under the administration of Dali City and located by the shores of Erhai Lake. Once a small fishing village, Wenbi village has transformed into a popular destination over the past 10 years. It now attracts visitors from all over the world with its picturesque scenery, high-end homestays, coffee shops, and designer boutiques.
The same coastline scenery of Wenbi village: 2015 (left, a snapshot by Baidu map) vs 2023 (right, when I visited the village this year):
The Party Secretary of Wenbi Village, Haidong Town, Dali City, stated in a media interview that the rise of tourism has contributed to the local economic development:
Before 2013, the collective income of the village was zero. In 2021, it reached 280,000 yuan, and it is projected to reach 500,000 yuan this year… it’s estimated that the per capita annual net income in Wenbi Village was 8,500 yuan in 2013 and 15,800 yuan in 2022.
By 2022, the GDP of Dali city reached 535.71 billion yuan with a population of 656,361. Minorities make up 75% of the total population, with the Bai ethnic group being the main minority. Unlike other "ordinary" cities we have covered before, such as Gaoyou (Part I, Part II) and Shengze, Dali city's economy is primarily focused on tourism and services. By 2022, the tertiary industry accounted for 64.18% of Dali’s total GDP. Even in 2022, when Covid restrictions were implemented nationwide, Dali city received 35.47 million domestic and international tourists, including 17,700 overseas tourists. The total tourism foreign exchange revenue increased by 232.92% compared to the previous year [source].
In today's post, I would like to share some observations on how tourism has become the cornerstone of Dali City (and the sheer beauty of the landscape) and how the commercialization has clashed with tradition during this process. Additionally, by examining the perspective of young Chinese individuals, many of whom have left their full-time jobs in metropolitan areas to settle in Dali, we can catch a glimpse of future opportunities for alternative careers and lifestyles for young Chinese people.
The family-owned business
In Dali city, one notable difference I have noticed is that the majority of businesses, such as homestays, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and designer boutiques, are owned by families or groups of friends. Five-star hotel chains are rarely seen in Dali. People come here for the unique designs of small homestays that offer a sense of hominess and a laid-back feeling, free from luxurious decorations.
The Dali model is quite different from other adjacent popular destinations in Yunnan province, such as Lijiang and Tengchong, where the level of commercialization is much higher. In those places, many tourist attractions, hotel complexes, and resorts are systematically planned and developed by real estate giants. (The real estate market in Tengchong has become so hot that a large number of affluent Chinese individuals have flocked to the area to buy hotels, apartments, or vacation homes, some with regrets. However, that is a different model and story for another day. Sanya, a city in Hainan province, also saw similar development models. If you are interested, let us know, and we can provide you with the latest updates on how the market has evolved in recent years.)
The place I stayed in is a five-story homestay with a Mediterranean-style interior design. It is owned by a brother and sister from the same family, with the elderly sister primarily responsible for the day-to-day operations.
"Our family came from Sichuan province. When my parents were young, they came to Yunnan to build the tunnels and saved up some money. They decided to invest their savings into a homestay because the infrastructure in Yunnan is quite developed, and we wanted to explore other opportunities. While technically our parents own the place because it's their money, my sister and I don’t want them to mess with the daily operations. We don't fancy their aesthetics and service philosophy of the older generation." the brother told me.
The elder sister who runs the hotel was previously an experienced manager for high-end customer experience at Ctrip.com, China's largest online travel agency (OTA). She left her well-paid job in Chengdu, Sichuan and relocated to Dali this year.
I asked the sister why she chose to settle in Dali, and she replied:
I simply like the life here, it’s much more laid-back, you spend time with your family, and you get to walk around.
However, running a homestay in Dali is not as easy as living in a "utopia". Many homestays have failed and gone bankrupt within just a few years. To succeed, you need to make extra efforts to enhance the customer experience. As the sister mentioned, "after all, customers come to Dali to enjoy the picturesque scenery with a modern level of service. What they actually need is a clean room, a five-star hotel experience, excellent service, but with a touch of the pastoral taste so they feel like they have escaped as they desired.”
How the service upgrades
Although situated in remote Southwestern China, homestays in Dali are far from outdated. It is typical to find homestays with a simple and clean style that offer the same quality bedding used in five-star hotels.
During my stay at the homestay, I noticed that all the rooms were equipped with smart home appliances. The homestay also provided daily breakfast, afternoon tea, and a special "good-night" beverage.
Homestay powered by smart home appliances. This is the scenery of Cangshan Mountain and Erhai Lake that guests would wake up to.
"We paid 50,000 Yuan (that's approximately $7000 USD) to learn how to make professional and high-end afternoon tea from a dessert chef who used to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant. We are still adjusting our menu for the upcoming winter season. ”
"My sister used to work in high-end tourism, so we can leverage a lot of her experience.”
“That level of detail is necessary to truly enhance customer service. Our parents may not be able to achieve that level of detail.” — the brother told me.
Happy with my stay, I asked them if they would like to advertise on my newsletter. The brother politely replied, "We don't advertise much, but it sounds okay to me. It's fairly profitable. Our rooms were fully booked in a second during the peak season. Even during the off-peak season, we have an average of 2 rooms booked each day (they have a total of 10 rooms), which is enough to cover our costs.”
The per night rate for a typical homestay in Dali is around 1000-2000 Yuan (140-280$), which is comparable to the rates of typical five-star hotels in first-tier cities like Beijing or Shanghai.
Family-owned businesses are seen throughout the city of Dali, with some of them owned by a group of friends, aka the "chosen family". During dinner at a restaurant (with a beautiful biophilic interior design), I met a waiter in his early twenties who had recently quit his full-time job at an internet company and moved to Dali this year.
I was a content maker on Douyin working for a internet firm, pay was ok, but the 996 life was just way too hectic for me. Here in Dali, I can know everyone in the town. Whenever I want to get a drink and get hammered, I always find someone to hangout with. — the waiter
The waiter invested some of his savings from the internet job into the restaurant, along with a few of his friends.
Moving to Dali and investing in a homestay is not a quick win, contrary to what many might think. If you are looking to invest your money, live somewhere else, and wait for a return, it would be wise to consider other options such as Lijiang or Tenchong.
Many people invested in Dali on impulse, and as a result, numerous coffee shops, restaurants, and homestays went bankrupt. You need to truly love living here, invest your thoughts into your establishment, and be extremely hands-on. I like working here, it feels intimate, and I decorate the restaurant and wait on the table myself. Life is simple here, pay is not that important. I don’t worry about the future and I don’t feel like I need to plan everything out. For now, I like my life here. We'll see where I'll be in the coming years.
According to the waiter, investing in a homestay in Dali typically takes 10-15 years to recoup your investment (That's a much fairer investment compared to the rent-to-price ratios of real estate in other parts of China. However, this assumes that you can successfully keep the homestay running.). The minimum amount needed to invest in a homestay is around 6 million Yuan (or 645k USD). This amount covers the cost of renting properties owned by local residents who used to be fishermen living by the shore. Many of these residents own land close to the lakeshore, which are ideal spots for homestays and restaurants. However, they rarely sell these properties. Therefore, entrepreneurs will need to rent the land for 10 or 20 years and renovate the establishments on the land.
On the other hand, investing in a restaurant requires a significantly smaller investment. If successful, you can recover your initial investment in the second year.
Of course, I earn much less here, and the job doesn't look as fancy as a job in a big internet firm. But you can rent a huge and gorgeous apartment with a view of Erhai Lake for just 1,000 Yuan (~140 USD) a month, and that rent is even on the higher end. That's something you'll never get in Chengdu (where I used to work). — the waiter
Commercialization vs Tradition
Apart from the modern homestay and restaurant, Dali city merges ethnic and traditional heritage with commercialization opportunities.
扎染 “Zha Ran”, also known as "tie-dye", is one of the most famous tourist experiences in Dali. It is an ancient and traditional fabric dyeing technique prevalent in Yunnan. This technique involves folding, twisting, pleating, or crumpling cloth and binding it with string or rubber bands before applying dye(s).
In Dali, you can find "Zha Ran" shops scattered everywhere, most of which are owned by individual families. Traditional tie-dye techniques involve the use of 板蓝根 “Indigo root” (the root of the Isatis tinctoria plants) as a dye. Indigo root is commonly used in Chinese medicine to treat colds and flu, but when used as a dye, it produces a natural indigo or bluish-green color. Due to the purely natural processing methods of traditional tie-dye fabric, it is highly favored by advocates of nature, those who prefer skin-friendly materials, and those who prioritize their health.
In Dali city, there are numerous family-operated shops that offer tourists the opportunity to participate in the creation of tie-dye scarves, dresses, or T-shirts. Visitors can select patterns from a pre-selected collection (such as constellation signs, zodiac signs, plants, animals etc), and local artisans will guide them through the process of folding, twisting, and dyeing the fabric. The entire experience typically lasts around 20 minutes. The cool thing is that each pattern is unique because the dying process is somewhat random, unlike computer-printed patterns, which attracted many tourists looking for a personalized way to express themselves.
I asked the granny from the Bai ethnic group, who taught me how to fold and twist the fabric (well, she pretty much did all the work), if she enjoyed working in this tourist experience shop. And she replied with a slight frowns and sighs:
What would you like me to discuss about life and happiness? We are just workers here. You can choose from three color shade options: 1, 2, or 3. This is how it is for everyone every day. Oh, you should pick option 1, it looks nicer with the scarf.
If you are interested in learning how to make an easy tie-dye scarf, below is a video of the entire process (at 8x speed).
The tourist experience feels much like an assembly line, where tourists get a quick taste of what the ancient technique looks like and finish checking a box on their itinerary. However, the business is definitely profitable. Typically, tourists can choose to tie-dye a white scarf, T-shirt, or dress, which sells for a couple of hundred Yuan, with the cost ranging from less than 20-30 Yuan. Many shops also offer the option to tie-dye a cashmere scarf, which has become quite popular. While you may avoid getting your hands dirty with the traditional technique, who would say no to a cashmere scarf with skin-friendly ingredients and a one-of-a-kind pattern, all at a much lower cost compared to luxury brands?
Perhaps a utopia for a worker from the metropolis like me is far from a utopia for the locals — that’s how the commercialization process works. However, commercial efforts do play a role in reviving and preserving traditional heritage to some extent. Rather than being confined to museums, traditional techniques are kept alive and innovative through commercial products that blend them with modern lifestyle.
Aside from the tourist experience, traditional Yunnan tie-dye offers a wide range of possibilities. Artisans can meticulously create intricate and precise patterns and artwork, with years of training and practice of course. Many families dedicated their entire lives to the tie-dye technique in order to achieve such virtuosity. Many of these patterns can be seen in museums or purchased at premium prices in the art market.
In Dali, local artisans craft unique tie-dye products, but finding them online, especially on a global scale, can be a challenge. These artisans handmade each item with care, using 100% pure plant-based dyes that carry Dali's rich cultural heritage.
If you're on the hunt for distinctive gift ideas, you're welcome to explore Dali's one-of-a-kind treasures through our Shopify store linked below. We've tracked down one of the rare Dali-based merchants with an online presence, and exclusively for our Baiguan readers, we've curated a selection of iconic items that we can help ship globally. These items are 100% handmade, and the availability is limited.
Aside from the well-known tie-dye technique, the local government of Dali has strategically planned the art district to preserve various traditional heritages and promote tourism. That includes a variety of traditional craftsmanship such as clay sculpture, dough sculpture, Bai minority's fabric dyeing, bronze and iron artwork, silverware, wood carving, clay cat figurines (clay cat is Bai’s talismans), Jiama print, and various other folk crafts.
Today, the art preservation district is filled with modern restaurants, coffee shops, and designer stores. However, some items in the shops, such as toys and jewelry, are also mass-produced and readily available on platforms like Taobao or Xiaohongshu. Travel photography services can be found every few hundred meters. Not all tourists are interested in the cultural and historical richness of Dali, but many of them spend hours on professional photoshoots to capture the scenic beauty they rarely get to experience in city life.
Nevertheless, the serenity and romantic vibe of Dali ancient town continue to attract millions of tourists who come to shop and support the ideal and idyllic lifestyle of the designers and entrepreneurs who have relocated there.
At a small artisan tie-dye shop, I met the owner, an independent artist in his late 40s. He personally designed and hand-made all of his tie-dye clothing. Interestingly, he proudly mentioned that he imported all the white t-shirts used for the tie-dye designs from Korea. I expressed surprise, remarking that tourists wouldn't come to Dali to buy a Korean T-shirt. The owner clarified that he only used the t-shirts as a base, and the pattern design itself was entirely his own. He believed that tourists still perceived Korean-imported t-shirts as high-quality, a belief that might have been prevalent in Chinese cities back in the 90s but has long become outdated.
When I asked him whether he considers setting up an online shops to sell his original designs even to the global consumers, the owner replied lightheartedly:
Why would I? I have enough customers to make a living. All of my stuff is handmade. I already can't keep up with the orders anyway.
After all, tourists may not be purchasing tangible products solely for their functionality, but rather for a sense of relief and the feeling of a fearless getaway that they have been longing for. The locals' attitude towards life and work can serve as the best example. Not everything needs to be mass-produced; instead, you can create a small number of creative products and live a simple and self-sufficient life happily.
If you arrive in Dali by airplane, you will notice the landscape packed with wind turbines and solar panels. According to official data from the local government, as of 2021, the installed capacity of hydropower in the Dali region has reached 13.04 million kilowatts, wind power has reached 1.863 million kilowatts, and photovoltaic power has reached 553,000 kilowatts — The proportion of clean energy installed capacity has reached 99.85%. Dali county alone has accounted for 1/5 of the new energy installed capacity in the entire Yunnan province.
For the locals who have lived around Erhai Lake for generations, the arrival of clean energy and booming tourism is certainly not an immediate transition into a utopian lifestyle, but it is fundamentally changing their traditional way of living.
My trip happened to coincide with the traditional festival called "开海节" (Kai Hai festival) for the residents living around Erhai Lake. This is an annual event that signals the beginning of the legal fishing season on Erhai Lake.
During my return trip from a temple situated on an island, I noticed that workers on the commuter boat starting to cast their nets. It was approximately 5 pm in the afternoon, and we were the final group of passengers returning from the temple before they called it a day. Unfortunately, the attempt was in vain — No fish were caught during our brief journey from the temple back to Wenbi village.
I was quite surprised to see the locals start fishing right away on a commuter boat, at least this is not something you would typically see in other tourist attractions. The locals told me:
This is something we used to do regularly. But there are less and less fish in the Erhai Lake over the past decades. Erhai is an inland lake, and everyone is fishing. There are more tourists in recent years as well. Many “Erhai Lake restaurants” no longer serve their signature fish dishes from Erhai Lake.
Influence of the foreign culture
In the towns around the Erhai Lake, you can easily find homestays and dining spots that draw inspiration from European and Mediterranean styles.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Dali is 理想帮, which loosely translates to "Ideal City". It is a resort and commercial district complex that features many trendy hotels designed in the style of the Aegean Sea in Greece. Due to its popularity and resemblance, both locals and tourists refer to this place as the "Santorini of China". (I didn't go there, but I heard that the spot was so crowded with tourists that it was difficult to take a picture without strangers in the background.)
To travel from Santorini to Dali, one would need to go from Santorini to a major international airport in Europe, fly to Beijing, and then to Dali Airport. This multi-flight trip would take more than 48 hours to complete. However, Dali is not immune to the influence of foreign culture.
Many netizens are even saying, "It's simply a more affordable option to enjoy the experience of traveling to Europe. Same landscape, newer infrastructure, and hotels, at a much more affordable price.”
In Dali, another trendy thing is cooking Chinese ingredients in a Western style, known as "中餐西做". The fusion cuisine trend became quite popular in first-tier cities in recent years, but its popularity has since faded a little bit. Interestingly, this trend has also spread to lower-tier cities like Dali.
We had a dinner celebration for my father's 59th birthday at a restaurant located right next to the homestay. The chef, who is in his early 30s and previously worked as a sous chef in a Michelin restaurant in Hangzhou, relocated to Dali a few years ago to train aspiring fine dining professionals. This year, he moved to Wenbi village and started his own entrepreneurial venture by opening his own restaurant.
While turning 35 is becoming a curse and triggering anxiety for many employees in China, the experience of a chef-turned-entrepreneur certainly opens up another possibility.
What is the future of China's service upgrade?
Dali City serves as an example of how upgrading tourism, services, and culturally-inspired products can create high-value added experiences and merchandise for consumers. However, when looking ahead, it is natural to question what would drive the continuing upgrade in other parts of China.
To attract a broader consumer group interested in upgraded products and a high-value experience, it is important to understand their psychological needs and desires. Throughout the years, universal core values such as "democracy," "freedom," "courage," "equality," "diversity," and "innovation" have been incorporated into iconic brand images, many of which originated from developed economies.
In China, however, we don't talk about "values" that much, at least not that much in the past decades. After all, what would resonate with the domestic and even global consumer is not going to be keywords like "cost-efficiency" and "996-style hardworking", although superb cost-efficiency and the hard-working population are indeed what have driven the rapid development of Chinese products and enterprise in the past decades.
Could Dali City inspire unique values that resonate universally? To me, I see "temperance", "nature", "Taoism", and "rebellion" - a set of values that evoke a philosophical stance embodying the moderate pursuit of material wealth and a balanced spiritual life close to nature. This figurative image could speak to the global audience while still preserving the unique spirit of Dali City.
And perhaps, the path towards the upgrade lies exactly within these diverse values — values born from a tapestry of cultural richness, landscapes that stir the soul, and the stories and motivations of those who dared to chart a course divergent from the prevailing winds of the era.