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'Red Tourism' Boom Lures Chinese to Mao-Era Sites

People prepare to present flowers to a bronze statue of Mao Zedong in Shaoshan, in China's central province of Hunan on Dec. 24, 2013

Photograph by Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

People prepare to present flowers to a bronze statue of Mao Zedong in Shaoshan, in China's central province of Hunan on Dec. 24, 2013

Want to get into the Chinese revolutionary spirit? Consider a tour of one—or several!—of China’s “red tourism” destinations. They’re the hottest spots: Visits to the sites where Chairman Mao and his fellow revolutionaries lived and fought are expected to double to 800 million and generate 200 billion yuan ($32 billion) in spending by 2015.

Top on most lists is Shaoshan, Hunan province, the birthplace of Mao Zedong in 1893, in steamy southwestern China, which has drawn many millions of Chinese tourists over the years. Another top draw is Yan’an, in northern China’s Shaanxi province, where the Great Helmsman and his fellow insurrectionists lived in caves on the arid Loess Plateau, for about a decade until the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.

With red tourism taking off, cities across China have embarked on an infrastructure building spree. Last year local civil affairs departments spent 2.8 billion yuan ($450 million) building red memorial sites; the central government budgeted 487 million yuan toward red tourism, reported the Xinhua News Agency on June 19. Meanwhile, another 1.5 billion yuan was allocated to improving roads to revolutionary sites. China must “rigorously develop red tourism” proclaims the country’s 12th Five Year Plan, which runs from 2011 to 2015.

One such locale vying for the surge in business is Wuxiang County, Shanxi province, once home to the Eighth Route Army, which later became part of the new People’s Liberation Army, and headed by revolutionary general Zhu De. The local government has opened a cultural park, regularly stages shows that recount battles the army fought, and has created travel itineraries “that let tourists sample life as a guerrilla,” according to the Xinhua report. Wuxiang’s revolutionary offerings attracted 2 million tourists last year resulting in 2 billion yuan in revenues, the local government says.

With Party Secretary Xi Jinping regularly referencing the importance of revolutionary values in his ongoing campaign against cadre decadence, some are hoping red tourism will do more than just generate money. “We should also make use of the educational function of red tourism,” said Dong Jiang’ai, a professor at Shanxi University. “It could help reduce corruption when we appreciate the efforts of these soldiers, and learn from them.”

Roberts is Bloomberg Businessweek's Asia News Editor and China bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter @dtiffroberts.

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