Tourism brings entrepreneurs business in Xinjiang

With an average altitude of more than 4,000 meters above sea level, few plants can thrive in Tashikurgan Tajik autonomous county on the Pamir Plateau.

But for Dildar Yakup, the county-the highest in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region-is an ideal place for new businesses to grow.

The 28-year-old ethnic Tajik is running a cafe and two restaurants in Tashikurgan. It is the only Tajik autonomous county in China, with about 81 percent of its roughly 41,000 residents belonging to the Tajik ethnic group.

His passion for entrepreneurship dates back to his college days.

Yakup, who grew up in south Xinjiang, attended high school in Shanghai in 2007 thanks to a program nurturing talented youngsters among the country's ethnic minority groups.

Yakup later studied tourism management in a local college, embarking on his first business venture in his sophomore year by working as an agent to help foreigners find jobs. After graduation, he started up a workshop with several friends to make ads for e-commerce platforms.

"Business opportunities abound in Shanghai, and it feels good to run your own business," Yakup says.

After staying in Shanghai for about nine years, in late 2016, Yakup went back to his hometown, finding it to also be rich in opportunity and boasting a supportive business environment.

In recent years, Tashikurgan has seen a growing number of visitors drawn to the county's snow-capped mountains, verdant grassland and Tajik festivities, such as the eagle dance and polo.

However, Yakup saw there was an opportunity to offer them a better traditional Tajik food experience than was already available.

"Food is part of culture, and a stylish restaurant can also be a tourism destination," says Yakup, who opened his first eatery in late 2018.

The most popular dish in the restaurant is yak meat hot pot, which combines the mainland's popular hot pot culture and Tashikurgan's yak industry.

Yakup then opened a cafe and became manager of a high-end Tajikstyle restaurant, both of which are located near popular sightseeing spots and, during peak tourism seasons, visitors have to make reservations.

More than 1.1 million trips were made to Tashikurgan in 2019, bringing in more than 1 billion yuan ($141.3 million) in tourism revenue. The remote county made it onto the top national tourist destination list in late 2019, and is no longer considered as a poverty-stricken area.

The burgeoning tourism market on the Pamir Plateau has not only drawn visitors, but also entrepreneurs like Yakup. His two main business partners, Zhang E and Zha Juan, used to work elsewhere in China, but both decided to stay in Tashikurgan for career development.

Zha, who has set up a tourism development company there, is now participating in over 10 hotel-related projects in the county. She has made training local professionals a priority.

"They know all about local ethnic culture and traditions, which they can help retain and highlight, and this is key to sustainable tourism development," Zha says.

Yakup's businesses have created jobs for over 20 locals. Despite a fall in visitor numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he is still upbeat.

"The impact will be short-term. After the epidemic ends, the pent-up tourism demand might generate a surge in trips to Tashikurgan," Yakup says.

In April, construction began on Tashikurgan Airport, expected to be the highest-altitude airport in Xinjiang. Slated for completion before June 2022, it will improve transportation and boost the county's tourism market.

Yakup also plans to make a foray into cross-border trade as Tashikurgan borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

"My hometown is changing for the better. I will be here for the long term," he says.