Ancient Chinese trade port attracts global visitors
As the final preparations get underway for a major international conference in Beijing next month connected to the "Belt and Road" initiative, authorities in Fujian's coastal city of Quanzhou are moving to revive interest in its historical links with the ancient Silk Road trading system which the "Belt and Road" concept is modeled on.
References to the "Silk Road" are most often associated to the overland routes traders took through Central Asia to conduct trade in China.
However, historians note that a good portion of the trade during the height of the Silk Road era actually flowed in and out of China through southern ports.
One of those ports was the city of Quanzhou in today's southeastern province of Fujian.
Chu Baoyang with Quanzhou's local PR department noted the city's thriving maritime trading history can be traced back around 1,000 years ago.
"During the Song and Yuan Dynasties, the maritime silk road was very prosperous. At that time, Quanzhou had already established trade relations with nearly 100 countries and regions," Chu said.
Quanzhou today is still renowned for its textiles, teas and ceramics, as it was 1,000 years ago.
Traces of the city's historical ties with the rest of the world are still found today throughout the coastal city.
It is said flowers adorned on women's headdresses worn in Quanzhou is a style introduced into China by Arab merchants.
Quanzhou is also home to a number of historical homes which are still adorned with oyster shells dating back hundreds of years.
Wang Xiumei lives along Quanzhou's coast, not far from where the city's thriving port trade would take place centuries ago.
"At that time, Chinese cargo ships transported these goods to Persia, or even further places like the east coast of Africa. When the goods were sold out, they would stuff the empty compartments with oyster shells they collected from local beaches to stabilize the ship and prevent it from being capsized," Wang said.
The city submitted applications in February to UNESCO to try to have more than a dozen sites throughout Quanzhou given World Heritage status next year.
Among them is the only known existing statue of the Mani Buddha, as well as the oldest known existing mosque in China built by Arab merchants.
Zhou Zhenping, Vice Mayor of Quanzhou, said protecting the city's history is one of the government's top priorities.
"Applying for World Heritage Sites is not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to protect the sites. Some of the steps we're taking include ratifying laws and regulations for the protection of the sites, as well as motivating the residents to love and protect those sites through publicity campaigns," Zhou said.
Previously bypassed by tourists who would instead opt to visit nearby Xiamen, Quanzhou's tourism has been seeing a drastic upswing in recent years.
Stats show that visits to Quanzhou by both domestic and foreign tourists have been increasing at double-digit rates over the past three years.
Last year, the city received close to 60 million tourists.
Countries along the Maritime Silk Road have also set their sights on Quanzhou for potential cooperation in tourism.
In February, a delegation led by Sri Lanka's Minister of Tourism, John Amaratunga, visited the city with the hope of increasing cooperation with local authorities.
Quanzhou officials are also working on a number of programs with countries and regions along the ancient maritime Silk Road on joint archaeological and cultural research.
But while protecting the city's past, Quanzhou's officials are also looking to the future, hoping to capitalize on the legacy of the ancient maritime Silk Road to boost global trade and cultural exchanges in a new era.