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Insights & Inspirations | Cultivate Creative Tourism Professionals and Boost Rural Revitalization and Development by Xu Hong


Xu Hong
Dean, College of Tourism and Service Management; Director, Leisure Agriculture and Rural Tourism Research Center, Nankai University

Distinguished leaders, dear guests,

Good afternoon. It is my great honor to have this opportunity to discuss rural revitalization with you in such a beautiful mountain village. Today my speech is titled “Cultivate Creative Tourism Professionals and Boost Rural Revitalization and Development.”

Which rural areas to revitalize? By whom? And to what goals? We have always been trying to answer these questions. Today I would like to share with you three thoughts. First, the implementation of the rural revitalization strategy can drive innovation and creativity in the development of rural tourism. Second, the creative development of rural tourism has brought new changes in the demand for talent. Third, we need to reconsider the training strategy for rural creative tourism professionals.

Based on what we have seen and experienced in the past two days here, we are confident that rural revitalization is a promising undertaking. What are the conditions of the countryside that we want to revitalize? First of all, we should truly understand what the countryside is. In my opinion, the countryside is actually a spatial complex composed of four elements, namely, population, land, industries and institutions. So what problems does the countryside face in the course of national development? In the process of urbanization and industrialization, the spatial flow of factors of production is becoming more intensified, but this flow is moving from rural to urban areas, leaving the countryside hollow and marginalized. So far, 256 million farmers have migrated to urban areas for livelihoods. With all the strong, capable labor force gone, today’s villages are left only with the elderly, women and children. This has caused many social problems, including rural decline, land abandonment, non-agricultural use of land, and withering industries. Traditional agriculture, farming and breeding alone can no longer enrich the countryside.

In the process of rural revitalization, we also need to explore some institutional innovations. In such a composite system, the above four core factors of production are faced with the same problem: how to reform and innovate in the process of revitalization. Faced with such a problem, The Report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China points out that “The principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved. What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.” Our work should resolve around this principal contradiction. Unbalanced development is mainly manifested in the urban-rural gap. What should we do with that? The answer lies in the integrated development of urban and rural areas. This is the direction we are heading to.

Inadequate development is mainly seen in rural areas. The countryside faces the problems of restructuring, industrial innovation and creative development. In this context, we must realize that rural revitalization is by no means equivalent to booming rural industries or higher income. At the national level, rural revitalization is an important strategic choice. The rejuvenation of the Chinese nation calls for rural revitalization. Rural space, population, industries, etc. all have an important strategic position. The Covid-19 epidemic drives home that the countryside is the ballast and stabilizer of national development.

In addition, rural revitalization is an inevitable choice for achieving integrated urban-rural development. The countryside cannot be viewed in isolation. It’s not that cities should tilt their resources to the declining countryside. Instead, urban-rural development should be integrated, which is also an effective way to promote the new development paradigm featuring dual circulations. The national strategy of dual-circulation development can be viewed from different levels and angles. For example, the county of Sishui has its internal circulation. How to boost the development of local industries? How to promote localized consumption? How about the rest of Shandong, the rest of China, and even the entire world? The internal and external circulations are thus not a matter of inside or outside China, but many circulations superposed at different levels. As to rural tourism, to enrich villagers with a prospering tourism industry, both production and consumption must be localized. Only such an internal circulation can increase the income of local farmers, and attract more rural migrant workers back to the countryside.

Rural restructuring is the inevitable choice to realize rural revitalization. The so-called restructuring is necessary to optimize the combination of factors, build a new countryside, and inject new vitality into it, because changes to internal and external factors have made the sound development of the original rural system difficult. Restructuring takes place in three aspects: spatial, economic and social. Spatial restructuring covers functional zoning. In fact, with the movement of population and the changes to factors of production, space is also changing. Economic restructuring, from the perspective of industrial development, means changes to the management pattern and the business model. Of course, with the introduction of outside investment, the original rural acquaintance society, semi-acquaintance society and stranger society will converge and initiate a complex process of social restructuring.

As to economic restructuring, the first goal of rural revitalization is thriving business, to achieve which we need to reconsider the positioning of agriculture. Traditional agriculture is considered a production base for agricultural and side products. This narrow positioning has limited agriculture’s role in enriching the farmers. We must reconstruct the way the agriculture industry is operated and give it more function. The foundation of rural tourism and rural revitalization lies in agricultural production. It’s hard to imagine without agricultural products how a village an its people could live on, especially when the flow of visitors was cut off by the Covid-19 outbreak. How could they survive? Therefore, we can not abandon its principal business – agriculture – while revitalizing the countryside; we just need to change how it operates and diversify its products. That’s why we need to reconsider the positioning of agriculture and give it more functions.

To revitalize the countryside, the first thing is to revitalize rural functions. Our understanding of rural functions used to be narrow. The countryside was the birthplace of farming civilization, and the root that that has nurtured the civilization nonstop for the past 5,000 years. If the foundation is shaky, the building will collapse. Therefore, the purpose of rural revitalization is to restore and strengthen the birthplace of the Chinese farming civilization.

The countryside is where agricultural production takes place and where farmers live. It is more than a place of agricultural production, or a supplier of food to urban consumers; it’s also where farmers live. We must see its people. Therefore, we should not limit our attention to agricultural production. A village without a good environment, infrastructure, education and medical facilities is not a good place to live in. We should see its people while trying to revitalize the countryside, and build a beautiful countryside which they call home. Agricultural production, and the supply of food, raw materials, and other materials, in fact, make the countryside an important producer of raw materials needed for industrialization and urbanization. As the strategic highland of ecological and food security, the countryside should ensure the supply of grains, and grains of good quality.

The countryside should be a thriving hub for startups, wellness and culture businesses. The revitalization of rural culture include the provision of products and services to meet wellness needs. The countryside is the promising land for startups in the future. We should dig out these functions of the countryside, which is not only a place for production, cultural inheritance, ecological protection, interpersonal communication and a better life. We will also find its new functions and value and that the countryside has the space for innovation and creativity.

The creative development of rural tourism is a path to restructuring, for restructuring requires innovation and creativity. We have proposed to the international community the sixth industry and the integrated development of primary, secondary and tertiary industries; the core of the sixth industry lies in the integrated development, and the two are inseparable. First, we need technologies represented by information technology, such as digital economy and digital countryside. Such technologies, including information technology, can be applied to the breeding, production and management of agricultural products. We also need cultural elements that are the brainchild of cultural creativity. The countryside has rich cultural heritage, but we have not dug it out. In fact we have not deeply understood what the rural culture is, and how villagers view their life. We need creative means to present the profound rural culture in a way that is acceptable to today’s audience and can bring sustainable benefits to local people. New ideas will spawn new products, and new markets means new opportunities. Creativity is the way to realize rural restructuring which is a condition for rural revitalization.

The creativity-driven development of rural tourism have new demand for talent. It promotes the maximization of the value of the tourist experience. Tourism is about experience. The so-called experience is a comprehensive psychological feeling, and a subjective judgment of customers about how good the experience is. Therefore, everyone’s experience is different, just as what we saw this morning meant different for us, and we all have own our opinions about it.

In order to spread positive culture in the countryside, our experiential activities should be fun and safe, and the scenes pleasant. We must consider whether the physical scene, the social experience scene, the interpersonal experience scene, the physical space that meets our eyes, and all the elements of creative design can create a pleasant experience. In addition, attention should be paid to the convenience and the climax of the consumer experience: whether consumers feel good about it and whether they can learn something from it. For example, rural study tours can expand our knowledge and allow us to better understand nature and the farming civilization. Our heart is indeed touched by the rural tour which has taught us the value of life and the hard work of farming. That understanding can help us promote the “Clean Plate” Campaign.

According to the marketing theory, sensory marketing or the embodied experience requires the mindset of sensory experience, and thus a supply of diverse talents. Our sense organs are our way of perceiving and understanding the world. There are five senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Creative marketing should start with the sensory experience in the above five aspects. By stimulating the tourist’s five senses in his tourist experience, we will give him a sensory impression which, if it is deep, unforgettable, and surprising, will stay in his mind and become a very important criterion to judge his sensory experience. Of course there is the perceived image. The two together will affect consumer attitudes and behavior. For rural revitalization, one-off visits are not enough. We need to increase the re-visit rate, to make tourists come back again and again, which requires strong stimulation of the tourist’s sensory impression and sensory image, including visual impact, good smell, etc. We have to develop that thinking through the embodied experience. All the rural creativity, in fact, should first of all work on the five senses, in order to get into people’s heart. We need to stimulate the tourist’s five senses pleasantly, in order to make a deep impression in his heart. So our visual experience lies with our creative landscape. In the development of rural tourism, we have turned the crops growing space into one for entertainment and enjoyment. For example, many villages have their “sea of flowers” and are engaged in the floriculture industry, planting flowers and growing a blossoming industry chain.

The chairs we saw this morning grow in the soil. There are chairs like these in the UK. Chairs growing in the soil – this is creative. Paint the village with different colors, and upload the footage to the Internet – this is in fact advertising to attract more attention to the village. There is also the taste experience, such as creative food. As the famous proverb goes, “Food is the first necessity of the people.” The countryside is a very important supplier of food. From cultivation to processing, the rural food industry is different and the rural restaurants are also different from fancy restaurants in cities. For example, the snack street of Yuanjia village in Shaanxi registers an annual income of more than one billion yuan; though in a small village, the street features the Guanzhong culture. From agricultural planting to processing, it has its unique local way which becomes its unique selling point. Once it satisfies a consumer’s appetite, he/she may come back for the food from time to time. Put the table in the rice field so that the diners can enjoy not only the food, but also the environment, the atmosphere, and being close to nature. Arranging the food in an original, aesthetic way will make the food more inviting to eat and take photos.

The tactile experience is embodied in homestays, which has been off the original idea. Originally the owners of homestays were supposed to use their idle rooms for accommodation, and the interior design should reflect the host’s taste and culture. But that is not the case now. With a lot of investment and dramatic reconstruction, rural homestays have become rural hotels. The homestay operators should be a romantic who is after the good and the beautiful in life, has his own taste and style, and has an eye for beauty. Of course, sentiments alone are not enough. Without profits, the business won’t sustain, so there should be a balance. Now the heavily-invested homestays in fact suffers from a very low rate of return, and many of them are in the red. In contrast, the homestays that incorporate local culture and use local materials are more appealing to the customers, require a smaller investment and yet deliver outcomes faster. If you ask the cash-strapped farmers to spend about a million yuan transforming their houses into homestays, only to find that after finish no guests are coming, and the owners themselves do not feel comfortable living there either, it would be a waste of money and space. This is obviously not our original intention. Rural transformation should be creative, make use of on what’s available on the ground, require only small investment, but have great artistic taste and style. In order to give visitors a tactile memory, rural homestays must create a memory for them, one that will linger in their mind afterwards and lure them back. A tourist experience that becomes a pleasant memory but does not lure visitors back is also a failure, so the third space in the countryside need to touch the guests so much that they will not only remember the experience after departure, but also revisit the place afterwards.

Of course, there is also the entertainment experience, such as the empowering creative activities. The countryside offers the best educational scene. Now it seems that every village is promoting study tours to change the old, outdated educational concept, for the government is pushing for all-rounded development of students in terms of moral grounding, intellectual and physical ability, aesthetic sensibility, and work skills. As an educator sometimes I feel so heartbreaking to see so many children exhaust themselves trying to win the rat race against their peers at so early an age that they lose their imagination when it comes to creative development. Their imagination has been contained since childhood for they are told that there is only one correct answer and there are rules to follow. But for children, sensibility comes before sense. The purpose of study tours is not only for profits, but also to reverse the direction of education, so that children can truly appreciate the glory of work in nature, understand and fear nature. Study tours can inspire their love for parents, and interest in scientific research. Therefore, entertainment is the integration of agriculture, education, culture and tourism, so building a rural education complex like that is in fact a very promising enterprise for the countryside in the future.

For example, the successful parent-child education farm program in Japan is actually launched by an alliance of pig farms. They combine the themes of natural agriculture and pig raising to build a business integrating leisure agriculture, online shopping and so on, with a very long industry chain. Moreover the image of piggies is also a big magnet for children. For another example, in the township of Chishang in Taiwan, locals shift from selling rice to selling experience. Just imagine the visual shock when you see an elegant piano in a wheat field. The huge contrast of the two will leave an impression you will never forget. They are not just selling rice; they’re selling experience, art and beauty. This is where Taiwan excels in terms of creative agriculture. Of course, the Mamaland Kids’ Farm in Beijing is also a farm-based classroom, turning farming activities into a tourist experience, and the farmland into a playground.

Then there’s the memory-arousing experience, such as souvenir shopping, but we still lag far behind in the souvenir development. With all the natural endowments in the countryside, how many ways do we have to increase their added value? Without cultural and creative elements, we cannot increase their added value, and they will remain only agricultural and sideline products. There is a businesswoman in Tianjin who is engaged in e-commerce agriculture. She pays farmers in Shenyang to grow corn in their yard, and then pays them handsomely for the harvest. She has a small processing plant there and sells the vacuum-packed corns ten yuan each to consumers across the country. I’m one of her consumers too. She offers annual membership programs with different rates, and sells and distributes agricultural and sideline products harvested in different parts of the country through e-commerce, to city dwellers who can afford them. In fact, our souvenir business is far from fledgling. In Taiwan, Dream Works of the Plum is working on the cultural and creative elements to give its products added value and an exclusive symbol.

Let’s return to reality. How are we doing with the development of rural tourism products? The homestays are usually poorly designed, and even the few who hired designers look as if they were copying the same design. There is a lack of functional food products, and functional agriculture is still to be developed. For example, the pro-health function of agriculture remains to be development. We need scientific research findings to tell consumers which agricultural products are rich in selenium and contains trace elements, and can get the human body clear of which harmful substances.  In addition, the food products should be eye-appealing. They are not only food to be eaten, but also appealing to the eyes. Tourist products lack appeal and are similar everywhere, and there is a lack of tourist souvenir. For example, Japan’s ISHIYA biscuits are a must-buy for nearly every visitors. In fact, we have much better products in terms of quality in China, but ISHIYA’s superior design, packaging, and grade of gift are hard to resist. We have so many different products in China, but their value added is generally low, there is a lack of gift products in the market, and the entertainment products are not trendy enough. In the current rural tourism market, rural holiday-makers were mostly born in the 1980s, 1990s, and even the 2000s, and only fashion products can catch their eyes.

Basic criteria for creative professionals needed for rural tourism development. What kind of creative professionals should we cultivate? There is the ASK model. They should love the countryside and understand the farmers and the countryside. Accordingly we could ask questions like: Are they really committed to rural revitalization? What is their attitude to work and service? Do they have the knowledge about culture, nature and creative service needed? Do they have the ability to keep learning? What is their aesthetic taste? How is their ability to express themselves? How about teamwork? Therefore, we can use the ASK model to measure whether the creative professionals have the values and attitude to commit themselves to rural revitalization, and have the knowledge and abilities needed for rural revitalization. These three aspects are the priorities of talent cultivation.

Last but not least, I’d like to share some thoughts on the strategy for cultivating creative professionals for rural tourism. I think creative rural tourism should have three core elements. One is culture, which is the premise and foundation of creative tourism. The second is interactive learning and experience which is the way and form of creative tourism. The goal of creative tourism is to realize self-development and economic and social development of the destination through an interactive, creative experience. Rural development is not only for courting tourists, but also for boosting local economic and social development and increasing farmers’ income. We must not deviate away from the principal business. We should allow tourists to achieve self-development through the creative tourist experience, and moreover serve local farmers, local industries and local economic and social development.

To realize the development of creative tourism, we should work on the following five aspects. How is our visual shock, for example? Is it powerful enough to impress tourists with the rural scenes? In addition, we also need the penetrating power of history, the cultural appeal to understand the countryside and history, and the nurturing power of life to subtly influence and transform talent and local farmers. And their is the rippling effect of joy. With coordinated efforts in these five aspects, creative professionals will be able to fully tap their strengths. In this process, their core quality is critical: they must possess professional knowledge and skills required and the ability to contribute. They should be the high-caliber cohort among our human resources. In terms of the core quality, there are three aspects: social participation, cultural foundation and self-development. In fact, our training of students and local farmers should focus on enhancing their social participation, cultural foundation and self-development.

The cultivation of creative professionals should combine sense and sensibility. The sensible path is the learning of theories, knowledge and culture. The path of sensibility is more important in the development of creativity. It needs to take place in real rural scenes to activate what the trainees have learnt and inspire them to create beauty. We should diversify the ways of practice, and effectively expand the source of rural creative professionals. They may be artists, or farmers, inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, or even cooks. Their work can be transformed into creative products. Therefore, we should extend the scope of creative professionals who should not be limited to colleges and universities, or the learned few. Of course, we should change the concept of education and cultivate rural creative professionals who have both ability and integrity. We should not only teach them skills and knowledge, but also to inspire and motivate them to contribute to national development. Education should be a two-wheel drive.

In order to cultivate creative professionals, it is necessary to build an online education system bringing together the government, businesses, universities, research institutes and users, and diversify the training service providers. For example, government agencies may provide some non-profit training programs, and enterprises, village collectives and farmers should participate in practice and theory learning programs. We should also diversify training methods and go beyond the classroom, just as Tsinghua University’s Rural Revitalization Workstation we visited this morning; it is scene-based, practice-oriented, and putting theoretical knowledge into real-life use. Culture needs to be passed down and disseminated, and tourism is a means of dissemination. The training content should be diversified, to include sensory elements, consumption elements and industrial elements. We need creative designers, people that make plans, operate and implement, artisans, and last but not least we need institutional guarantees.

To cultivate creative professionals we need to change the concept, system and methods of education. Nowadays students passively take in knowledge, instead of proactively constructing themselves. There is contradiction between constructivism in education and technicalism in education evaluation, but now technical indicators are used to evaluate educational outcomes. The goal of education is for the people, to cultivate a sound character, humanity, basic qualities, morality and professional competencies. As to the educational system, we need to address the problem of educational flexibility and openness. For example, given the fixed schooling system, how do we enhance flexibility? Given the limited school resources, how do we go beyond the campus and seek external cooperation to form an open education system? Last but not least, the teaching methods should also be diversified. For example, we may combine online and offline education, and field visits as a form of education. In addition, the teachers should transform from a feeder of knowledge into a mentor and a coach. To realize our development, we should cultivate a person who can devote his knowledge and ability to society and change the teachers’ role from the perspective of dedication to rural development.  Resources may be the gift of nature, but creativity can be nurtured. There is no end to cultural and creative development, just as there is not limit to tourism development.

This is the end of my speech. Thank you.