YINGXIU, CHINA— China has spent billions of dollars rebuilding quake-struck cities and towns in southern Sichuan province following the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Many of the worst-hit areas now have quake museums, and one key focus of recovery by local officials has been to focus on earthquake tourism. But the recovery model is not always sustainable, and rebuilding after so much destruction and loss of life remains a big challenge.
More than half of the residents in the town of Yingxiu died in the Wenchuan earthquake. Now, tourist stands welcome visitors at the entrance to the rebuilt town along with a fleet of tour carts.
"Before the earthquake, people mostly relied on breeding of animals and agriculture, but after the earthquake we saw huge damage in this area. Eighty percent of the foundations of these buildings were badly damaged, so now people here have to rely mostly on tourism for their income," said Ma Qunzhen, a guide and member of China’s Qiang minority.
Ma says there has been a steep decline in visitors to Yingxiu, the epicenter of the Wenchuan quake, following last month’s earthquake in nearby Ya’An.
Since the Wenchuan quake, Sichuan’s province has invested nearly a billion dollars to create more than 170 memorial sites across the quake zone.
North of the epicenter in Hanwang, a former industrial center, the sheer force of the quake is even more evident.
Some visitors come to see the destruction first hand. Others come to remember a vibrant city that is now a shell of its former self.
Fu and his girlfriend Wu were students at the time the quake hit, and grew up in Hanwang.
"Here on the higher floors there were homes. On the first floor there were many shops that sold clothes and food. There were Internet cafes. And next to that there were street hawkers with their stalls and over there was a market, before we used to buy groceries there," Fu recalled.
Fu says that when he visits, he thinks of his classmates who died and what Hanwang used to be.
"The change has been for the worse, it is not like it used to be. I have been living here since I was a child, and then because of the earthquake, many friends have gone away and moved," he said.
In the new version of Hanwang, empty shops and homes line its wide streets.
Throughout the quake zone, one does not need to look far to find newly built and empty homes.
Even Yingxiu, which appears to be finding itself anew, but many homes and storefronts are up for rent.
Ma Qunzhen says that to keep going, Yingxiu must keep looking forward.
"You cannot be living in the past right? In the future, people will have to attract tourists to come here and stay, eat, tour and buy things," she said.
Ma says few have left Yingxiu, in part because they have been living in the mountainside town for so long that they don’t want to live anywhere else.