The Great Wall. Terracotta warriors. Shanghai's skyline. For decades, these have been the sights that travelers have flocked to in China. But in recent years, a new kind of attraction has been offering competition: the high-altitude, glass-bottomed bridge. As of this year, there are about 2,300 of them in China, plus many more glass walkways and slides.
For a few years, it seemed like tourists couldn't get enough of these transparent novelties, and local governments across the country raced to build their own. Now that boom is ending. Local media reported this week that several provinces are closing their bridges, either permanently or until they can be upgraded to deal with a range of problems — not least, fatal accidents.
What will remain when and if they reopen is a chastened tourism industry and stark lessons about the dangers of overinvestment.
For decades, China's government has viewed tourism as an important economic-development tool, and has encouraged investment in the industry by everyone from foreign hotel companies to rural villages. In 2015, tourism-sector investment increased by 42 percent, to top 1 trillion yuan — a figure that the National Tourism Administration expects will double by 2020.
One byproduct of this binge has been an awful lot of glass-bottomed bridges spanning China's rivers and gorges. Although it's not clear who built the first one, there were several either underway or already attracting visitors by the mid-2010s. Most were in underdeveloped regions keen to attract a bit of the expanding tourism business, and looking for quick, relatively cheap way to make a splash.
But there were signs of trouble from the start. In 2014, a mountainside glass walkway cracked under the weight of too many hikers. In 2015, a glass bridge fractured and had to be closed after a visitor dropped a thermos on it. A year later, the Zhangjiajie Bridge, a 1,400-foot span that hangs 1,000 feet over a gorge, had to be closed after it was mobbed by visitors far in excess of its designed capacity, a mere 13 days after opening. The next year, it was pummeled by falling rocks.
Any one of these incidents should've cautioned against building more bridges without a thorough review of design standards. But far from dissuading construction, the overwhelming initial success of Zhangjiajie — combined with wide-open funding taps — set off a rush to build hundreds more bridges in the space of a few years, often under the supervision of architects and construction firms that had no experience with such work.
By 2017, it was dawning on a few provinces and cities, including Beijing, that China had not yet established construction standards for these bridges and had few regulators experienced in inspecting them. Several fatal incidents brought the point home. And yet the glass-bridge boom went on: In 2017, the world's longest glass span was unveiled in Hebei Province, while another opened up over the Yellow River.
Meanwhile, developers were finding out that the public's appetite for such bridges isn't unlimited, and that visitor numbers drop off quickly after the first year of operation. Local governments that had relied on rosy visitor projections were left scrambling to repay huge construction debts. Those financial considerations, as much as safety ones, likely accounted for reports this week that glass-bridge building has been suspended in provinces across China.
Of course, this isn't the first time that overinvestment has left a surplus of money-losing, poor-quality products behind. China's electric-vehicle boom is currently going bust largely because too many companies were making substandard cars and batteries. In both cases — bridges and cars — bad policy and easy money pushed local governments to splurge on industries they had little experience with and that lacked sufficient demand.
In a sense, China's government seems to have learned its lesson: It wants to move on from encouraging dangerous, failing tourist attractions in favor of building up towns and regions that travelers might want to spend days or weeks visiting. Such a scheme comes with risks of its own, of course, and won't eliminate the dangers of overinvestment. But it could be a bridge to the future that's a little less wobbly.