Orchard owners in Yangshuo county of Guilin city, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, have little to worry about harvesting their yield when it starts raining fruits on their premises. They are employing people from around the world to do it for free. In fact, Yangshuo is opening many a door to tourists to stay with them, enjoy their hospitality and share the fruits of their labor.
"Wonderful getaway experience. The staff at the hotel made everything easy and doable including but not limited to picking up to and from Guilin train station, fabulously comfortable rooms, great restaurant and menu, bike rentals, and a raft drifting down the river. We only had a long weekend, wish it had been longer. Am already looking forward ... when I can visit again."
That's how Karen B, a tourist from Greater Adelaide in Australia, describes her stay at Tea Cozy on TripAdvisor.
The "hotel" she is referring to is actually a homestay in Yangshuo, which now has around 1,000 homestays.
"Living in a homestay puts me closer to local customs and practices. The homestays in Yangshuo, with the leisure activities they organize, ranging from handicraft to painting, slow paced life," says another tourist, from Beijing, who calls herself Sandee.
The homestays in Yangshuo amid beautiful landscape, and the cultural events they organize appeal to tourists who have specific needs these days, says Cheng Bing, a professor of tourism studies with Guilin Tourism University. "The charm lies in the integration of the landscape and culture," says Cheng.
As one of China's early tourist destinations to open up to the world in the early 1980s, Yangshuo got its first homestay in the mid-1980s near Gongnong Bridge on the Yulong River. It has now grown into an industry employing 10,000 people in the county of 300,000.
Wu Jianyuan, a 30-year-old from Jiwodu village in Yangshuo, returned to her hometown to work as a front desk manager at a homestay after gaining experience working in hotels in Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces. "The payment is better here. Life and work are stable, and Yangshuo is not only a beautiful place, but my home too," she says. Wu is one of many migrant workers from Yangshuo who returned to work in her hometown. It is estimated that more than 80,000 people owe their living to the tourism industry in this county.
The tourism industry is rebounding quickly as the novel coronavirus has largely been brought under control in China. The booking rate at homestays in Yangshuo, particularly the highend ones, has almost returned to the pre-pandemic level.
Homestays have created a way for farmers to get a slice of the tourism industry's cake.
Zheng Jiancheng, a farmer in Huashan village of Yangshuo, opened a two-room homestay in 2015. It now has eight rooms. He says his earnings from the homestay is about five times his farmland revenue.
Around 20 out of 70 families in the village run homestays; even the remaining ones rent out their place sometimes.
Tourists are also invited to pick fruits in the farmers' orchards. With a large influx of tourists, farmers are less bothered about what to do with their yield. Liao Dongxiu, a 62-yearold farmer in Liandaowan village of Yangshuo, who manages an orange orchard, said: "Ever since tourists began arriving, we have stopped bothering about picking up the fruits ourselves, as tourists love to do it for us. And the oranges also get sold quickly."
Zhang Xiaoyang, deputy Party chief of Yangshuo, said the homestays not only create jobs for some impoverished farmers, but also help them sell their agricultural produce, thus becoming an important tool for poverty alleviation in the county.
Some homestays are renovated houses that are hundreds of years old and invariably located in the mountains or beside the rivers.
Chen Ronghua, who owns six homestays in Yangshuo, pays special attention to ensuring any alteration during renovation gels well with the natural landscape and overall construction style. The more "invisible" a homestay is, the more attractive it becomes, he says.
Almost all homestay owners in Yangshuo are unanimous about carefully preserving the environment, ecology and way of life in the villages.
No wonder many tourists find their county experience memorable. Wirral Walker, who was Chen's guest, said on TripAdvisor: "The scenery stunning with the karst peaks overlooking the swimming pool. It provided us with images of China we will never forget."
For the farmers, the thriving homestay industry brings more than jobs and money. It brings with it a modern way of life.
Sandee, the tourist from Beijing, said the services provided by the villagers in the homestays are different from the hospitality one sees in city hotels. "It makes you feel you are cared for," Sandee says. "For instance, they will greet you like a family member and take the initiative to help when they fear you might get caught in the rain or lose yourself in the mountains."
Wang Jie, a tourist guide in Yangshuo, said locals regard tourists as their friends, or even family members, which not only brings them more regular customers but also makes them happy.
Fang Quanxing, vice-chair of Guilin Homestay Association, attributes the success of Yangshuo's homestay industry to the involvement of the younger generation.
"The young people can change a whole village's fate, as they have a stronger desire to pursue a better life and are more skilled in using the internet to sniff business opportunities," Fang says.
"It is the young people who have injected vitality into the villages by exploring ways to bridge their hometown and the outside world. And it is this special experience that Yangshuo offers that is pulling tourists from around the world."
According to Zhou Yan, head of the Yangshuo local government, the government introduced a regulation in 2018 to better regulate the homestay industry's development. The same year, a homestay association was founded in the county, which has now become an effective platform for the industry to strengthen self-regulation and exchanges among its members.
Li Ziyu and Wu Yijun in Yangshuo contributed to this story.