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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.

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