Northwest Yunnan is home to Lijiang, Zhongdian, and Tiger Leaping Gorge, and has the most developed tourist economy of anywhere in the province. Chinese tourists looking to “get in touch” with their country’s history fly out to northern Yunnan from Shanghai and Guangzhou and spend their vacations with packaged tour groups. It’s actually really funny to see these groups in action; imagine thirty middle-aged adults all wearing identical t-shirts, pleather “Tibetan” hats, and oversized sunglasses being led around by a little guy with a bullhorn. The irony of course is that northern Yunnan, Lijiang in particular, is largely minority territory and wasn’t absorbed by China until the mid-thirteenth century.
Here’s a picture of me with a Chinese tourist in Lijiang. This guy, whose name I have unfortunately long forgotten, worked in a Baozi stand in Guangzhou. He managed to get a week off and boarded a train for Kunming. I met him on a sleeper bus from Kunming to Lijiang (lesson learned: never, ever use sleeper buses in China). As Chinese tourists go, he was actually something of an anomoly in that he was poorly educated and very much working class.
The other main species of tourist in northern Yunnan are the laowai–mostly westerners who come up to Yunnan through Laos or Vietnam. Even though getting to Yunnan from these countries isn’t too difficult, the region wasn’t really on the map for most of the Southeast Asia backpacker set until fairly recently. I would guess this is largely because China has a somewhat bad reputation among typical Southeast Asia backpackers. Unlike in Thailand and (to a lesser extent) Laos, the vast majority of Yunnan workers lack basic English skills and can come off as a bit brusque. Also, the Chinese have a horrible habit of turning Disney-ifying their best tourist sites. I can’t tell you how many pagodas and mansions I’ve been to that have been filled with faded plastic anime characters. Naturally, none of this appeals to backpackers looking for “authentic” experiences.
Nonetheless, there is now a steady stream of westerners coming rhough Yunnan. I actually prefer the backpackers I’ve met in Yunnan to most of those in Thailand. Westerners in Yunnan seem to be a bit older on average, more mature, and generally more interesting.
Before I go, here is one more Yunnan picture. I took this on the outskirts of Lijiang looking north: