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Lijiang, China’s tourism gateway to the Mekong gateway

Lijiang, a historical city, looks to be turned into an attractive gateway for travellers when visiting Yunnan And as usual in China, the city has a strong will to turn its ambitions into a big success.

LIJIANG- Lijiang is one of the most attractive tourist destinations in China. Populated by ethnics close from Laotian origins, the city carries a very strong historical character with its 800-year old houses. Many of them have been converted into boutique hotels with a very distinctive charm. Local traditions are very similar to the ones existing in Tibet as Lijiang’s main living ethnics, the Naxi, are originated from that region.

The city located in the Northwestern part of Yunnan province lies on the slopes of a mountain which gives the urban centre its very distinctive character. In 1997, UNESCO inscribed Lijiang into the World Heritage List justifying its choice with the following description: “Lijiang is an exceptional ancient town set in a dramatic landscape which represents the harmonious fusion of different cultural traditions to produce an urban landscape of outstanding quality”.

The city has still to get more awareness from travellers which include convenient air connections. Lijiang is exclusively linked for now to China, with flights to 12 cities including two major connecting hubs such as Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Kunming. Since the end of May, Sichuan Airlines also opened the first direct flight to Hong Kong on May 31, operating three times a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), allowing passengers to avoid a transit via Kunming and a long eight-hour ride on a bus from Yunnan capital.

Since March of this year, Lijiang airport was approved to operate as a hub airport, the third in the province after Kunming and Xishuangbanna (Jinghong). The city started planning to get new international flights. That would include in priority Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore. Discussions were recently hold with Thai and Korean authorities about the possible opening of new routes.  The tourist city would like to be turn into a mini hub to other UNESCO world heritage sites with new flights connecting Lijiang to five other UNESCO-listed destinations in China, such as Huangshan Mountain, Jiuzhaigou, Zhangjiajie, Guilin and the Pingyao Old Town.

Talking to local media, Yang Chengxin, a senior official of the Lijiang government, said the city will improve facilities supporting the Lijiang airport and open more domestic and international flights to make Yunnan into Southeast Asia’s gateway. Lijiang airport, which expanded recently to become the second largest airport of the province, can accommodate 4.5 million passengers a year, following the completion of expansion work in 2007. The airport was opened to commercial  operation in July 1995.From less than 20,000 passengers in 1995 the number of passengers has grown to surpass two million last year.

By 2015, Lijiang airport plans to have more than 35 domestic routes and at least five international routes, local officials said. And the airport will transport more than 4 million tourists, including more than 400,000 foreign tourists.

The old town of Lijiang, was formally licensed in 2011 as the national 5A tourism attraction spot, the top one among China’s tourism ranking system, on July 27, 2011. During the first six months of 2012, news agency Xinhua reports that a total of 8.1 million visitors arrived in the city, an increase of 56% over 2011. The tourism industry’s revenue of the same period reached US$ 1.634 billion, growing also by 56%.

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Luc Citrinot a French national is a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years experience. Based in Paris and Bangkok, he works for various travel and air transport trade publications in Europe and Asia.