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If Dunhuang Mogao Caves Were to Be Developed by a Tourism Investment Company

CHP 2014-12-20

Dunhuang Mogao Caves had been listed in 1961 as one of the first National Level Heritage Protection Sites of China, and in 1987, it has been inscribed on the World Heritage List. When listed as the National Level Heritage Protection Site, it means that Dunhuang Mogao Caves are under full protection of the Chinese heritage law, and when inscribed on the World Heritage List, it means the commitment of the Chinese government to the world on its “full and upmost” effort to protect the Dunhuang Mogao Caves. In 1987, according to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, “Dunhuang Mogao Caves meets all six criteria of the World Cultural Heritage; and the Board of Chairmen urged the Chinese govern to take all necessary measures to protect this cultural estate (murals) from being threatened.”

In fact, the history of how the Dunhuang Mogao Caves were protected in the past is a valuable part of this cultural heritage protection legend already. At the help of many cultural giants and social celebrities, the first institution dedicated to the protection and research of this heritage was established in 1944 on a site not much better than a ruin. It was situated in the midst of a Gobi desert, frequently visited by numerous bandits. Aside from the brief period when it was managed by the “Academia Sinica”, this institution had always been supervised directly by the central government in the first decade since it was established. In 1950’s, this institution was renamed the “Dunhuang Cultural Heritage Research Institute”, and it was supervised by the Gansu Provincial Government. According to the handover agreement signed between the Ministry of Culture and the Gansu Provincial Government, any slight modification on the nature of the work scope of this research institute would have to consult with the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Culture is responsible for providing professional guidance on its work. In 1984, “Dunhuang Cultural Heritage Research Institute” was renamed “Dunhuang Research Institute”.

In the past 70 years, almost every generation of staff of this institution work very hard to protect and research the Mogao Caves, with rich findings and research papers as an outcome. The significance of the Mogao Caves is thus better known in the world, and the staff members’ hardwork deserve our highest respect. Nowadays, the Dunhuang Caves is already an outstanding example of the world cultural heritage protection and a world class academic institution. Nowadays, it is also a very good site for both academic research and tourist sightseeing, balancing very well the needs of “protection” and “development”. Ordinary tourists can fully enjoy the site, and experts can also realize their needs for research.

But, the future of Mogao Caves is not very promising, as it is facing the threat of development by a tourist investment company. According to a tourism development plan compiled by the Peking University Boya Strategy Tourism Planning and Landscape Design Institute, The Master Plan of Dunhuang Mogao Caves – Crescent Moon Spring Tourist Area & Specific Plan of Some Key Spots, Dunhuang Mogao Caves is going to become part of the “Dunhuang Mogao Caves – Crescent Moon Spring Tourist Area”. As a result, the Dunhuang municipal government is going to set up a new entity to take over the management (protection and development) of land, heritage sites, forest and water resources within the tourist area. This newly formed tourist investment company is going to obtain the right of development of the tourist area through paying for a “tourist area resources rental fee”. The Peking University Boya Strategy Tourism Planning and Landscape Design Institute hoped that this tourist area will be able to receive 2,131,300 visitors and realize tourism revenue of RMB496 million by 2017, and 2,734,600 visitors and RMB761 million revenue by 2020.

Simply glancing through this development plan by the Peking University Boya Strategy Tourism Planning and Landscape Design Institute, we may get the false impression that this was only due to the greediness of some evil developers. But we also noticed the newly issued Suggestions on Enhancing the Reform and Development of Tourism Industry by the Gansu Provincial Government. According to this Suggestion, we are astonished to find that this is not just the greediness of the Peking University Boya Strategy Tourism Planning and Landscape Design Institute, it actually demonstrated their confidence. The Suggestion emphasized that the management structure should be “innovative”, and a grand tourist area management committee should be formed, so a “coordinated planning and development” can be achieved; municipal (prefecture) government should establish tourism development companies; grand tourist area construction projects should be implemented, and by 2017, we should establish 8 grand tourist areas including the Mogao Caves – Crescent Moon Spring tourist area. It seems that the Peking University Boya Strategy Tourism Planning and Landscape Design Institute has thoroughly understood the nature of this Suggestion, hence they have come up with this “Grand Tourist Area Plan”.

If Dunhuang Mogao Caves were to be developed by this tourist investment company, the heritage will undoubtedly be destroyed. Inside the caves, there are murals and clay sculptures, scientific instruments monitored the temperatures, humidity and CO2 density. All visitors must follow the guidance of the museum staff so they will enter the caves open to the public in order and leave in order after listening to the guide explanation. Other than those caves in need of restoration, many caves are not open to the public as a cautious preservation measure. Some caves are still facing the threat of water leaking problem and the erosion of sand storm. According to authoritative measurement, the daily visitors of Mogao Caves are no more than 3,000 people. Inside the Mogao Caves, it has all been very carefully and scientifically measured on how to open the caves to the public, how many caves should be opened, how many visitors should be allowed and what kind of routes should be followed. The protection and management of the Mogao Caves should be separated from its tourist development; if we mess them up, it will not be difficult for us to foresee the compromise of its scientific management, and in a result of the destruction of the heritage itself.

If the Dunhuang Mogao Caves were to be developed by the tourist investment company, it is unavoidably to diminish the research capability of the Dunhuang Research Institute. After 70 years of development, Dunhuang Research Institute has already assembled a lot of top scholars, researchers and established the following sub-divisions: the Protection Research Department, the Fine Art Research Department, the Archaeological Research Department, the Archive Research Department, the Ethno & Religion Culture Research Department, the Heritage Digitalization Research Department, the Dunhuang Research Magazine, the Protection, Research & Exhibition Center for Dunhuang Caves Cultural Relics, the Dunhuang Studies Information Center, the Dunhuang Mogao Caves Digitalization Exhibition Center, the Yulin Caves Heritage Protection Institute, the West Thousand Buddha Cave Research Institute. All the scholars and researchers base their study on caves, murals and sculptures, and they have also applied their research to the protection, development and management of these caves, murals and sculptures. But if we separate the rights of research and protection from its management, we may very likely to cause trouble for our scholars and researchers, so they won’t be able to study as they wish. In turn, their research results will be difficult to be applied to the protection and management of the heritage. Without accessing these heritage, how could these scholars can bear with living in the Gobi deserts? It won’t be difficult for them to get a better job somewhere else in the east coast metropolitans.

Although the tragedy has not begun, and the development of the tourist investment company has not started, CHP truly believe that we should try our best to stop this idea from growing when it is still in the womb, and the best way is to encourage a public participatory approach to this matter. In the end, the Dunhuang Mogao Caves are too fragile, and we can’t allow it to be “experimented”. There are simply too many lessons of how heritage sites were destroyed by tourist investment companies.

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