Paris has culture. Barbados: beaches. The big draw to Southeastern China’s Fujian province: Breathable air.
A television ad from Fujian’s tourism bureau shows off the province’s lush, green mountains, and sandy beaches. Crystal clear views abound. "Take a deep breath," says the voiceover, "you’re in Fujian."
"We launched the clean air tourism campaign in January, when Beijing’s pollution levels were very bad," says Zheng Weirong, deputy director of the bureau. "We’re promoting 20 tourism sites around the province where people can breathe clean air."
Boasting about clean air may seem to set the bar pretty low. But in a country where just one percent of half a billion urban residents breathe air judged safe by European Union standards, Fujian’s strategy is paying off.
A guide holding a neon pink flag in one hand and a megaphone in the other corrals a group of tourists along an island pathway overlooking the sea in the city of Xiamen. On this particular day, Xiamen’s level of what’s known as PM2.5 -- particulate matter in the air small enough to enter your blood stream -- hovers around 45. That’s dirtier than the most-polluted day on record in Los Angeles over a 24-hour period. But these folks are from Beijing, where on this day the level is 10 times as bad.
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Tourist Yun Ya is thrilled. "The air is so fresh here!" she says, adjusting her sunglasses. "Whenever I go to work in Beijing, I have to wear a mask or else I’ll start coughing uncontrollably. It’s just been terrible lately."
Yun is part of a 38 percent spike in tourists to Fujian this year -- twice the national average. Like most tourists interviewed for this story, she came here to escape the smog. "China has always followed the path of ‘pollute first, clean up later,'" says Yun, who works for an environmental consulting company in Beijing, "But if China doesn’t start cleaning up its environment, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen. An environment like this one in China has become rare."
Fujian hugs China’s Southeastern coast. It’s position along the Taiwain Strait helps diffuse pollutants in the air. Deng Junjun, a researcher at the China Academy of Science’s Institute of Urban Environment, says Fujian’s air is cleaner than other parts of China thanks to policy decisions, too. "For 35 years, Fujian’s government has ensured that it’s had the highest forestry coverage rate throughout China," says Deng.
Still, Deng says an increase in car ownership means that Xiamen’s air, despite its national fame of a clean air city is getting slightly dirtier each year. There are no cars here on a quiet tree-lined alley on the island of Gulangyu in Xiamen; just birds.
And two young lovers on their honeymoon, holding hands, going for a morning stroll. Ai Jintao and Zhang Nana came here from Beijing."It’s nice to be here. On our way here, we drove through Shandong," recalls Ai. "The smog was so thick that police had to close the highway. You couldn’t even see the cars in front of you! There’s no traffic at all here. There’s a little fog in the morning here, but it smells like the ocean."
Ai says he’ll be sure to take a deep breath before he heads back home to smoggy Beijing.