EDITORIAL: New Silk Routes

The reemergence of Silk Roads across Asia in the 21st Century

by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS

Eighty years ago, the term “Silk Road” was made popular by the Swedish geographer Sven Hedin in 1938 with his book “The Silk Road”, based on his work in what is called today Xinjiang (former Eastern Turkestan). He simplified the concept of “Silk Roads” (plural), which was invented in 1877 by the Prussian Scientist Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen based on his visits to China even further.

In fact, since the times of Confucius and Buddha, 2,500 years ago, there have been not just one, but many different trade routes across Eurasia, connecting Europe, Central and South Asia, and China on land and on water.

Many different products were transported on the Eurasian trade routes, among them cloths, grain, metal, ivory, precious stones, fruits, animals, tea, slaves, spices – and indeed also some silk. More importantly, however, what travelled on the “Old Silk Roads” were ideas and data, ideologies, religions, inventions, scientific and medical knowledge, languages. Gunpowder took only a few decades to reach Europe from China, the art of papermaking needed a thousand years to arrive in Andalusia. Apples originated in Kazakhstan and spread to both ends of Eurasia.

In 2013, the Chinese government made use of the romantic notion of a Silk Road when it declared a new “Economic Belt along the Silk Road” and shortly afterwards the “21st century Maritime Silk Road”. In the following year the name was changed to “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) and in 2017 again to the current term “Belt and Road Initiative”.

In January 2018 the “Trans-Pacific Maritime Silk Road” and the “Polar Silk Road” were announced by President Xi Jinping, disconnecting the term, which now includes Asia, Europe, Africa and even South America, more and more from the historic trade routes across Eurasia.

This has not stopped the tourism industry especially in Central Asia to leverage the renewed interest for “Silk Road” destinations especially in the Chinese outbound tourism market. On April 13 and 14 the 15th KIMEP International Research Conference Special Joint Venture: The Silk Road and the tourism and hospitality industries event was held at KIMEP, the No. 1 private university for Economics in Kazakhstan, based in Almaty. Oxford Brookes University and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University acted as the initiators and main supporters of the gathering of more than 150 experts from 25 countries, discussing how the brand “Silk Road” can be used to bring new visitors to Central Asia.

Your humble author was given the privilege to start the conference with a keynote on the Future of Silk Road Tourism, following be a large number of papers and presentations in parallel sessions, but also by interesting discussions during the coffee breaks and the lunches and dinners.

It became clear during the conference that a cooperation between the Central Asian countries is key to a successful build-up of the brand, and that only extensive product adaptation and training of the local tourism service providers will attract the right kind of Chinese visitors, coming to a country that is exotic but not totally removed from Chinese culture. There are certainly enough natural and cultural attractions in the region to develop different kinds of themed attractions and activities. With a little storytelling and packaging, there will soon more Chinese travel along the “Silk Road”, exchanging again ideas and data.

 

Wishing all readers of the COTRI Weekly a fruitful week!

Wolfgang Georg Arlt

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