Villagers in suburban Beijing have been busy harvesting chestnut this autumn. In recent years, locals have been hosting tourists in bed-and-breakfast spaces, young people have been returning to their hometowns to develop businesses and working teams have been engaged in rural revitalization.
Boasting a forest coverage rate of 93 percent, 500 years of chestnut cultivation, and a 19.8-kilometer Great Wall section, Bohai township in the capital's Huairou district received more than 900,000 tourists in the first seven months of this year.
However, about a decade ago, the township faced problems, with a dirty and disorderly appearance, dusty and bumpy roads and haphazard crop production with limited marketing outlets.
"Dirty water was poured on the street, the road surface was full of cracks, and firewood was messily piled up in the yard," recalls Wang Wentian, a chestnut farmer in Dongtai village in Bohai.
"We were quite envious of people from nearby villages who earned money by developing tourism," says Wang Dajiang, Party secretary of the village. "We tried to make a change, and improving the environment was the way forward."
With the joint efforts of villagers and local government, electricity replaced coal as the primary source of heating in 2018, and a sewage treatment station was in place by 2019. Asphalt roads have been laid right up to people's front doors, and solar-powered streetlights have illuminated the paths since last year.
Wang Bojun, 34, son of Wang Wentian, quit his job in the city in 2016, and returned to his village. "I firmly believe that rural tourism offers great opportunities," he says.
In 2017 and 2018, Wang Bojun participated in a wastewater disposal project that provided villagers with jobs. Last year, he invested around 200,000 yuan ($28,170) to transform his homestead into a B&B. At first, his father neither understood nor supported the gamble.
This summer, Wang Bojun's B&B received about three to four groups of visitors each week. "Our investment will be paid back soon, as this year's revenue is expected to exceed 200,000 yuan," he says.
The improved environment of Dongtai village and the emerging homestay facilities has attracted more tourists. "We are both participants and beneficiaries of rural revitalization," he says.
"I have been a carpenter since my 20s, but I never imagined I would be taking up a new job when I got old," says Wang Futian, 74, resident of Liuduhe village of Bohai township and host of the Old Carpenter B&B.
Wang Futian made a living from furniture and gained a reputation for his carpentry among the people in nearby townships when he was young. More than 20 years ago, he and his wife started accommodating tourists at their farmhouse when they came to visit the nearby Great Wall. "At that time, 10 yuan would be sufficient for an overnight stay on a shared sleeping board. There was neither a toilet nor a television inside the house," he recalls.
As China's middle-class has grown, people have become more discerning in their demand for quality. The elderly couple redesigned two farmhouses into B&Bs, divided rooms into private bedrooms, and established karaoke and chess facilities.
"These two homestays can host more than 30 people and are usually fully booked ahead of holidays, earning us around 400,000 yuan a year," he says.
According to Peng Xingjin, director of the township's tourism service center, Bohai is now home to 187 boutique B&Bs, creating more than 400 jobs and securing over 6 million yuan a year in homestead rental income.
"These qualified homestays have become an up-to-date industry for villagers in Bohai to generate an income," Peng says, adding that the township has positioned its B&Bs business as a key way to advance rural revitalization.
Bohai's tourism activities generated a total revenue of 172 million yuan in the first seven months of this year.
Villager Liu Haiyan has worked at the Old Carpenter for four years as the housekeeper and receptionist. "I used to earn just a few thousand yuan a year by selling chestnut. Now, I make around 4,000 yuan each month," she says.
The used sheets and towels of the Old Carpenter are carried to a laundry that provides washing services for nearby B&Bs. A worker there, Wang Jianrong, who operates the washer-dryers, says that there were only two employees when the laundry was set up in 2017 and now there are six, all of whom are locals.
In nearby Dongtai village, Wu Shangjun, an expert with the Beijing agro-technical promotion center, began work as its first Party secretary a year ago. He brought the villagers high-yield mushroom seeds.
Wu introduced stereoscopic cultivation, a planting method in which mushrooms are grown under chestnut trees. Wu believes that agriculture and rural tourism can boost each other.
Although Huairou is famous for its chestnuts, the plantation's scale and the value of its produce are not yet fully developed.
"We got tired of trimming trees and picking chestnuts, only to earn 10,000 yuan a year," says Wang Yanli, a local chestnut farmer. "Few from the younger generation were willing to take over."
Li Sipeng, deputy head of the Beijing Juyuande chestnut planting cooperative, returned to Bohai in 2017 and contributed new ideas to the industry.
With 830 households as members, the cooperative has set standardized chestnut planting and picking guidelines for the member farmers, and offered technological support.
"We are now exploring the production of refined chestnut snacks for bakeries and restaurants," Li says.
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