China is already dealing with declines in tourism due to its notoriously poor pollution levels, but there’s a different kind of cleanliness the government thinks might matter even more.
According to the National Tourism Administration, cleaner public toilets stand to make a serious impact on tourism rates over the next several years.
In December 2016, the NTA announced it was committing $290 billion over the next four years to upgrading 100,000 public toilets in the country’s hollowed-out rust belts — regions where factories and coal mines once boomed, but have since caused economic output to wane.
The NTA sees an opportunity to turn the old rust belt region into a profitable one rooted in tourism. China expects the so-called “toilet revolution” to help boost economic growth from 10.8% in 2015 to 12% by 2020.
As Linda Poon notes for City Lab, public toilets are as much a perk for tourists as they are necessities for locals.
One of the defining features of rural life in China is the pit toilet. Essentially a concrete slab with a hole, these toilets need to be manually emptied to prevent waste from accruing and posing serious public health risks. People who use these toilets are exposed to unclean water, which is widespread in China’s underground wells and can lead to life-threatening infectious disease.
“From my point of view, this shows how water is the biggest environmental issue in China,” Dabo Guan, a sanitation expert from East Anglia University, told the New York Times.
The NTA’s goal is to make rural areas more like sparkling Beijing, if not for their high-tech luxuries then simply their baseline cleanliness. Many bathrooms in China’s capital are equipped with Wifi and TVs. In certain outskirts, residents have yet to see rudimentary plumbing.
The administration also expects the investments to increase the number of visitors to China from 4 billion in 2015 to 6.4 billion by 2020 — a combination of toilet upgrades and beautifying projects that will turn hollowed-out coal cities into public parks.
Given China’s history with toilet revolutions — this one is actually the latest of several, dating back to the 1960s — there will likely be more to come. Even with 50 years to bring basic sanitation to the masses, catering to more than a billion people still takes time.