Tourism is a major driver of the Chinese economy and it remains at the core of massive development schemes in the northwestern Xinjiang region, home to 56 ethnic communities living here for centuries amidst mountains, deserts and oases.
While building huge trade and transportation infrastructure as part of its signature New Silk Road plan, China is investing heavily in preserving the ethnic diversity and improving life in villages and towns in Xinjiang, the core area of the revived Silk Route that looks to connect China with Europe through Asia and Africa.
According to Fitch Ratings, the tourism sector accounted for around 11% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 10% of national employment in China in 2019. Since then, Covid-19 has dealt a severe blow to this sector.
With withdrawal of harsh zero-Covid restrictions, China's domestic tourism rebounded, even returning to pre-pandemic levels during the Golden Week holidays in May this year.
China Tourism Academy expects domestic tourist trips to grow 73% over the last year.
The World Travel & Tourism Council forecasts that China's travel and tourism sector will directly or indirectly employ one in seven Chinese residents in 2033, with its GDP contribution reaching to 14%.
And Xinjiang, which just succeeded in lifting millions of its people out of extreme poverty, is looking to grab a piece of the pie as it advances fast towards a prosperous future as the core area of the revived Silk Route.
Hong Kong, Macau, Myanmar, South Korea, Japan, the US and Vietnam make up more than three-fourths of international visitors to mainland China, and their numbers dropped by 85% last year from the year before the pandemic.
This region joins the drive to bring foreign travellers back, mainly from Asian neighbours.
"We arrange dance and musical events, cultural exchanges and a big tourism exhibition to attract foreign tourists. We have already sent teams to Southeast countries including Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand," said Yan Naimin, deputy director-general of Xinjiang's Culture and Tourism Department at a briefing to a team of Bangladeshi journalists in Urumqi on 26 July.
The executive informed that the region received about 100 million tourists in 2022.
Kashgar, whose 46 A-level tourist attractions including ancient heritage and natural sites fetched four million domestic tourists in the pre-Covid five months of 2020, expects a boom this year.
There are visible efforts all around to preserve the ethnic cultural heritages and diversities, and display those to travelers in an organised manner as part of the region's aggressive tourism promotion drive.
Over the years, a lot of structures have been built exclusively to attract tourists. Even industrial technology parks and agricultural farms are also equipped with tourism attractions and comforts.
A number of landmark structures and facilities we visited during the week-long trip were either initiated or completed during the last five years or so. It appears that those projects gained momentum with the region's enhanced development activities under the Silk Route initiative.
Officials, however, said the recent developments are a continuation of the initiatives taken or planned since the 1970s.
Preserving ethnic heritage
Located in the core area of both the ancient and revived Silk Road maps, Xinjiang is one-sixth of the total size of China and 11 times bigger than Bangladesh.
Mountains and deserts cover roughly 60% of the total area. Yet the remaining land area is enough for the region's only 25.85 million population to build their life and prosper.
All of China's 56 ethnic groups can be found in Xinjiang, with Uygur, Han, Kazak, Hui and Kirgiz the five largest groups, according to 2021 data released by the State Council Information Office.
Of them Uyghur accounts for nearly half of the population, closely followed by Han, according to Xinjiang statistical yearbook 2019.
Uyghur and Hui are among the 10 ethnic groups having the most believers in Islam.
Ethnic unity is something China now prioritises, next to its massive plan to build trade and infrastructure to implement its new Silk Route mission.
Etigar Mosque, built in 1442 during the Ming Dynasty, is located in Kashgar and one of China's largest mosques. With a wide square to accommodate large religious congregations, the ancient mosque is a national-level key cultural relics protection site, said Mohammad Juma, the imam of the mosque.
While developing new portions with modern amenities, Kashgar City has also preserved its old town and rebuilt old houses, keeping the ancient designs as much as possible. Visitors get a glimpse of the city inhabitant's lives in the past, in a museum at the Old Town Conservation and Comprehensive Management Memorial Hall.
Famous for its delicious fruits, Kashgar City, with its spacious green park, public spaces, wide roads with thin traffic and illuminated shopping areas, also offers a pleasant nightlife for locals and tourists, who can enjoy food, music and walk in groups and with families till midnight on weekends.
Few kilometres from Kashgar, the Folk Musical Instruments Village of Xinjiang stands, facilitating local craftsmen to make ethnic musical instruments for sale.
Apart from workshops and utilities free of cost, the state government gives cash subsidies to the local craftsmen to make 27 types of traditional instruments, some resembling our ektara, dotara, khol, tanpura; and help them sell those.
New craftsmen are also trained here to continue the 150 years' tradition, said Razia Alkim, the narrator, wearing a decorated Uyghur cap.
An instrument maker, Rahman, 52, who also plays a number of instruments, said he has trained 12 students so far in making and playing instruments.
A 5.7 metre long tanpura, built at the centre, has been kept on display in the museum. It takes 60 days and costs 30,000 yuan to make such a huge tanpura, which requires three musicians at a time to play, Razia explained.
"Cultural heritage preservation is one of our key priorities. They earn from making and selling these instruments," said Yang, a local official.
The ethnic musical instruments and traditions are among the subjects being studied at the enormous Xinjiang Art University near the provincial capital Urumqi.
While the resourceful Xinjiang History Museum and magnificent Urumqi Cultural Centre will give interested visitors the rich history of the region, the Changji Food Court showcases the food culture of ethnic minorities mostly from the Hui tribe. The place is gaining popularity among tourists.
In Awat county near Aksu, a huge park, with a statue of 13th century Turkish philosopher Nasiruddin Hodza at the entrance, preserves the tradition of Daolang tribe and their forest of Euphrates poplar, known locally as king of desert.
The place is a tourist spot now, with visitors from all over coming there to see the life of an ancient tribe, have a camel ride or sight-see by tour cars or walking.
Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity are major religions recognised in China, but religious identities are often not discussed at official forums or formal talks.
Officials of the Communist Party of China and local government, or others whom we met or talked to in three cities of Xinjiang, avoided questions about religion and identified themselves in their ethnic identities.
Though people usually greet each other saying "Zǎoshang hǎo" in the morning, or "Xiàwǔ hǎo" in the afternoon, we were greeted with "Assalamu Alaikum" at the Changji food court in Urumqi, by a man visiting there in a group. An elderly woman greeted us with her palms pressed together at the National Wetland Park in Aksu.
"All people here have the right to believe or not to believe in any faith," said an official at the briefing in Urumqi.
Zhang Huazhong, deputy director general of Xinjiang Foreign Affairs Office, said Xinjiang has opened its door to the world and anyone can see the real life here, without "preconceived ideas" and a "fault-finding attitude."