DALI'S LAKE NOW INFAMOUS FOR POLLUTION
Up to 1,000 guesthouses and restaurants adjacent to Dali’s Erhai Lake have all put up closure signs. The once-bubbly town of Shuanglang is now devoid of tourists, but full of workers laying sewage pipes. It’s a bittersweet victory for those who have long decried the tourist-led gentrification of this idyllic Yunnan community.
The reason, according to the Dali prefectural government, is that Erhai has become insufferably polluted by sewage from tourism. The lake, state media bluntly reported, had become “a smelly pool” infested with outbreaks of blue-green algae.
A picturesque old town nestled in the Cangshan Mountains, Dali became popular in the 1990s with Chinese artists and musicians seeking inspiration from its tranquil landscapes, dirt-cheap rents, and freewheeling lifestyle. Youthful bohemians, foreign
beatniks, and “smog refugees”—yuppies escaping the urban grind—soon followed, and tourists flocked in their wake.
Though building codes have preserved the ethnic character of the Old Town, Dali’s streets are now clogged with interchangeable coffeehouses, live-music venues, and souvenir shops. The millennia-old fishing community of Shuanglang is also overbuilt, with the majority of its businesses illegal, according to a report in China Daily. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the official in charge of local environmental protection was jailed for accepting bribes last year.
The local Bai ethnic community, traditionally tea farmers and fishermen, now mostly employed in the tourist trade, stand to lose jobs through the closures, which were accompanied with no offers of compensation, and little advance notice to their owners (though Dali’s government has been warning businesses of their environmental impact since 2013).
“No one has assigned blame to who’s the real culprit for delaying the treatment of Erhai, or letting the tourism industry grow out of control. I paid my taxes and assumed we are legal, now it’s like we are sitting on pins and needles,” a local business owner told Caixin Weekly. “The closed guesthouses have made the biggest contribution to the local economy, and our investments were encouraged and guided by [local authorities]. Now we have become the culprits.”
The closures are currently scheduled to last a year, while the workers update the sewage treatment system around the lake. Some owners stand to lose millions, as land has almost tripled in value in recent years thanks to tourism. Others have kept their cool. “I can take the loss for the protection of Erhai,” one hotelier told a Hong Kong newspaper. “It’s no big deal. I can do something else.” – H.L.