Record tourist numbers threaten world-renowned caves

Xinhua
The Mogao Caves have survived 1,650 years of sandstorms and rain only to face their biggest threat yet — tourists.
Xinhua
Imaginechina

A general view at the Mogao Grottoes on September 13, 2016.

The Mogao Caves have survived 1,650 years of sandstorms and rain only to face their biggest threat yet — tourists.

Record numbers have been visiting the narrow caves carved from a sandstone cliff near Dunhuang in northwest China’s Gansu Province.

They have driven up temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels inside the caves, putting at risk the well-preserved but fragile Buddhist wall paintings inside.

“The humidity level inside the caves should be below 62 percent. Increased humidity can accelerate the process of flaking and formation of salt deposits on the murals,” said Chen Gangquan, chief of Dunhuang Academy’s cave monitoring center. “Such damage is a slow process and is difficult to notice with the eye, but it is irreversible,” Chen said.

The academy is closely monitoring the temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels in all caves open to the public. If certain caves exceed the limits, they will be closed temporarily.

The Mogao Caves have set a daily limit of 6,000 reserved tickets, plus an extra 12,000 emergency tickets to cater to the growing number of tourists .

The caves have survived this long partly due to their remoteness. The site’s Gobi Desert location kept the caves dry and visitor numbers low.

Today, however, improved transport and China’s growing wealth have fueled a huge boom in domestic tourism. Dunhuang is no longer too far off the beaten track.

Imaginechina

Tourists queue up in front of the Mogao Grottoes on October 3, 2015.

More than 1.34 million tourists visited in 2016, a rise of 70 percent from 2014. In the 1980s, the figure was around 10,000.

The academy expected the number of tourists in July to surpass 350,000, a new high.

The 735 caves carved along a cliff are home to a huge collection of Buddhist artwork, including more than 2,000 colored sculptures and 45,000 square meters of frescoes.

Guan Yanru, a tour guide with Dunhuang Academy, has only had two days off in the past two months. She talks to visitors for four hours every day.

“People can bear the pressure from the tourist overload, but the artwork can’t,” Guan said.

The academy has taken measures to control tourist flow and protect the sculptures and murals.

Since 2014, the UNESCO World Heritage Site has controlled the number of tourists during peak season. They are asked to register in advance and watch two 20-minute movies on the history of Dunhuang and the caves in a new exhibition center.

Later, they are guided to see caves that are open to the public. The videos have helped reduce hourly visitors from 2,200 people to 1,200 during peak hours, said Li Ping, deputy director with the Mogao Caves administration committee.

“It helps relieve the pressure on the caves, and with fewer crowds, visitors can have a better experience,” Li said.

Experts and officials from Dunhuang Academy and local tourism departments have been traveling to several cities, including Shanghai, to promote low season visits to Mogao, when ticket prices are halved.

The efforts have proved effective. Statistics showed a 34 percent growth in tourist numbers from January to April this year compared with 2016.

Facing threats of natural erosion and human-induced damage, Dunhuang Academy has been working on a digital archiving project since the 1990s.

Digital Dunhuang (e-dunhuang.com) was launched in April last year, offering virtual views of 28 of the Mogao Caves.

Behind the online experience is a huge amount of work, said Wu Jian, head of the academy’s heritage digitization center. “More than 40,000 photos are needed to digitize just one small cave with 300 square meters of frescoes.”

“Dunhuang is a shared treasure of mankind,” said Yang Xiuqing, secretary-general of the China Dunhuang Grottoes Conservation Research Foundation. “It is our responsibility to share Dunhuang’s culture with the world,” Yang added.

“But we are in a predicament now,” Chen said. “We cannot let tourists down since they come great distances. However, if they all swarm into the caves, the site may be harmed.”

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