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China: Desert Playground

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Tourism blossoms in Shapotou, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2009.

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Tourists gaze at the dramatic convergence of the Tengger Desert, the Yellow River and the "Fragrant Mountain" Range. Shapotou, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2009.

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ATV cars like this one keep tourists entertained during their visits. Shapotou, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2009.

As I enter the desert resort of Shapotou, signs beside the road boldly announce my passing into "The Desert Capital Of The World". Whilst seemingly quite an ambitious claim, the dramatic convergence of the Tennger desert, the Yellow River and the "Fragrant Mountain" range, has created one of the most spectacular natural settings in all of China.

The secret is out on this unique location however, as is evident by the line of buses outside the entrance, all carrying groups of tourists eagerly anticipating a day of fun in the sand.

Domestic tourism is now one of the fastest growing industries in China, with annual revenue from the industry averaging at US$60million, approximately 5% of the country's GDP. As the country's economy develops and the average household income increases, Chinese families are using their new disposable income to explore their country. Compared to other provinces, Ningxia is relatively little travelled. Shapotou however, is listed as "One of China's Ten Best Scenic Spots" and is by far the most popular tourist attraction in Ningxia.

For the busloads of tourists, the options of ways to have fun in the sand are endless. Depending on your preferred mode of transport, you can get around the desert in a number of ways. For the naturalist, you can choose between camels, horses and ponies, or, if you prefer something a little less eco-friendly, jeeps, buggies, quad-bikes and motorbikes are on hand. Following transportation, activities such as sand-sliding, beach volleyball, zip-wiring and rock climbing are all available to keep desert-loving visitors entertained.

As stated in a previous post, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is China's poorest province. Tourism at Shapotou however delivers a welcome cash injection into the local economy and provides jobs for over 300 employees at the resort. Indirect effects on the local economy are clear in the small but bustling town of Zhongwei, which lies closest to Shapotou, where the streets are lined with hotels, ready to cater for the needs of the next bus full of tourists.

As my car pulls away from the resort, another sign boldly bids me farewell from "the Forefather of the World's Deserts". Even though a small corner of the 43,000 square kilometres of the Tengger desert has been turned into a desert amusement park, it seems as if the area is a brief respite and distraction from the fight China is currently facing with its sands.