China flush with toilets after campaign to boost tourism

President Xi Jinping’s support for a campaign to build thousands of public toilets at tourist sites in China has ushered in a golden age of lavatory construction, as the government seeks to promote travel as a new economic growth engine.

While other elements of the Communist party’s ambitious economic reform plan have appeared to founder in the face of entrenched opposition, local officials are raising high the banner of China’s “toilet revolution”. According to the China National Tourism Administration, it built 14,320 toilets in 2015 and upgraded an additional 7,689.

At an event in the mountain town of Yesanpo, a popular weekend getaway in Hebei province, west of Beijing, CNTA deputy director Li Shihong said his agency would spend Rmb12.5bn ($1.9bn) this year on toilet construction, according to the official China News Service, while “tens of billions” more will be needed to complete the revolution, Mr Li added.

The event was held to mark the one-year anniversary of Mr Xi officially endorsing the three-year campaign.

Tourism is among the emerging consumption-focused service industries Beijing is promoting as part of efforts to reduce the economy’s reliance on manufacturing and construction.

Chinese travel agencies hosted tourists for the equivalent of 112m single-person days in the fourth quarter of 2015, up 17 per cent from a year earlier. Total travel spending rose 15 per cent to Rmb3.03tn in 2014.

Among the challenges to the lavatory push are that “Chinese people’s toilet usage habits are not civilised,” leading to higher supply and maintenance costs, according to a separate briefing in Beijing by CNTA director Li Jinzao.

He called for greater propaganda efforts to encourage best practices. One such measure is the decals now frequently seen on urinals, bearing the slogan: “One small step forward for you, one giant leap for civilised behaviour”.

Public urination and defecation, especially by children, remain common in China, even as the quality of public infrastructure has improved over the last two decades. Even where a rest room is available, old habits sometimes die hard.

A photo of a Chinese child cradled by his grandmother as he defecated outside a Burberry outlet store in Britain last year circulated widely online, becoming the latest symbol of badly behaved Chinese tourists. A map of the shopping centre showed a public toilet was less than 50 metres away.

A video of angry Hong Kong residents criticising mainland parents allowing their toddler to urinate on a public street in 2014 also became a flashpoint for anti-mainland sentiment in the territory.

But the Chinese government’s revolutionary zeal is also sparking innovation in toilet design.

The event in Yesanpo included the unveiling of the town’s so-called “Internet plus toilet”, named for the government’s broader “Internet plus strategy” to promote online services. The two-level structure features five lavatories on the upper section, while the lower section is a coffee house offering free WiFi, a self-service terminal to purchase tickets to local attractions and a charging station for electric vehicles.

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