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Digital technology fuels “coffee tourism” in Yunnan

Tech meets tourism: how digital helps rural economies flourish

After building out the digital infrastructure in its lush countryside, Yunnan Province has become a magnet for visitors

Technology plays a vital role in fueling economic growth. Investments in broadband networks and other ICT infrastructure help enterprises improve production efficiency, create new business models, and enhance product quality. The latest research from the International Telecommunication Union suggests that a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration has led to an average increase of 1.5% in real GDP per capita.

Providing the right digital infrastructure can be especially helpful to rural economies. Official government figures show that by the middle of 2023, roughly 60% of China’s rural inhabitants had access to the internet, while the number of broadband users in the countryside was expected to exceed 190 million by the end of this year.

One can see the benefits of this digital build-out in Yunnan, a less-developed, largely rural province in southwestern China. Yunnan’s recipe for success has three key ingredients: ambitious goals, better ICT infrastructure, and a strategic blueprint (drawn up in 2020) to concentrate on industries in which the province has a natural advantage. 

In a bid to revitalize rural areas, operators have stepped up the implementation of universal telecommunications services, gradually expanding 5G and fiber connectivity to remote areas. As a digital infrastructure provider, Huawei has contributed to Yunnan's digital development.

“Huawei and local operators explored innovative ways to both improve rural coverage and reduce its costs,” said Lei Lei, Director of Huawei's Yunnan Carrier Business Department.

Fully networked in Heshun

Built along rivers and surrounded by mountains, the town of Heshun is located about 650 kilometers west of the provincial capital, Kunming. Its history stretches back more than 600 years. During the Ming era, it was established as a trading and military outpost to fortify the dynasty’s presence when Yunnan was just a distant frontier.

But Heshun’s long history has not turned it into a mere cultural relic. Instead, the town has embraced digital technology by combining the ancient with the new – in unexpected ways.  

Heshun is fully covered by a 5G network. A high-speed broadband network enables visitors to access better services, more quickly and conveniently. Just as important, with full 5G coverage, it creates the infrastructure needed for Big Data analytics, allowing all the connected objects in the Internet of Things to send data to the intelligent platform for analysis.

That yields insights that can make tourists’ lives easier – for example, by assigning a visitor’s car to an optimally situated parking place that saves the driver and his family a long walk. First-time visitors don't have to worry about getting lost. Using a WeChat mini program, they can find their way around, buy tickets, locate restaurants, catch buses, and book hotels, among other things. City management can receive alarms from 50 points throughout the town to respond to any emergency in real time. Whether you’ve lost your phone – or lost contact with your family member – help is just one click away. 

Even the physical infrastructure has intelligence built into it. Automatic photo printers allow shutterbugs to scan a QR code and print their best snapshots on site. Benches equipped with solar panels and electric outlets can be used to charge smartphones. Smart water fountains monitor the quality and flow rate of water, ensuring it is both safe to drink and not being wasted. If you’re visiting in July, but want to know what Heshun looks like while blanketed in snow, you can see it vividly rendered with VR and 3D digital animation technology. Heshun’s digital infrastructure also allows it to be equipped with security cameras and a fire monitoring system, playing an important role in the protection of the natural environment and its historically significant sites.

“Tengchong's tourism industry has unique advantages,” said Ms. Chang Zaifei, Deputy Director of the Tengchong Culture and Tourism Bureau. “From January to September 2023, Tengchong received a total of 13.37 million tourists, and achieved a total tourism revenue of 17.1 billion yuan, increases of 22% and 38% respectively year-on-year. 

“Taking Heshun as an example, more than 4,000 local residents have increased their income as a result of the new economic opportunities opened up by tourism, which in turn have been created by the buildout of digital infrastructure.”  

5G brings coffee culture to Yunnan 

If you had to pick the perfect location for growing coffee, you’d probably choose somewhere like the village of Xinzhai. Situated by the Lujiang River dam about 1,000 meters above sea level, its elevation and mild climate produce superior beans that make for a fragrant brew. 

Most people wouldn’t associate coffee with a remote village in China. But the inhabitants of Xinzhai, and the nearby town of Baoshan, began planting coffee trees back in 1952.

By the 1980s, international coffee brands had begun to source low-grade beans from Xinzhai to make inexpensive instant coffee. Xinzhai villagers planted more trees, but they couldn’t scale the proverbial value chain: the quality of their output was relatively low, and so were the prices they could charge. Many villagers wanted to cut down the coffee trees and plant other cash crops instead.

But about a decade ago, Xinzhai decided to start planting higher grades of coffee bean. Today, 906 hectares are being used for coffee, taking up 95% of the total cultivated land and producing a yearly output value of nearly US$14 million. This growth has helped raise local living standards. 

Not just a crop, a platform 

California’s Napa and Sonoma Counties are renowned both for wine, and for attracting tourists eager to sample it. Napa Valley alone gets nearly 4 million visitors a year. 

Xinzhai wants to do the same thing with coffee. 

Already there is a Coffee Museum and a Coffee Experience Hall where people can learn about how coffee is grown, processed, sold – and, of course, enjoyed. There is an annual Coffee Festival. And at farmhouses converted into B&Bs, tourists can pick coffee beans in the field, learn proper brewing techniques from professional baristas, and taste the different local varieties of java, freshly ground. It has already attracted about 120,000 tourists a year, being a famous tourist village in Yunnan Province.

Digital technology plays an important role in the growth of both “coffee tourism” and coffee itself. The village of Xinzhai has deployed five 5G base stations to support e-commerce, live selling, and IoT applications related to coffee cultivation. IoT sensors can obtain meaningful data about coffee cultivation, including temperature, humidity, and soil acidity. By analyzing this data, farmers can plant more efficiently and reap greater economic rewards.

The coffee industry in Xinzhai Village has also attracted many outsiders to start their own businesses, including Ms. Sha Susu from Shandong. Based in Xinzhai Village since 2017, she currently runs a cafe and has her own plantation farm. 

Susu says she is thrilled about the possibilities of digital technology: "We hope to employ more technology and grow finer coffee. We would love to use live streaming and other means to let more people know about Yunnan coffee. I hope Chinese coffee can go out from Yunnan into other markets around the world."

Yunnan’s growing coffee industry is supported by stable, high-capacity 5G connectivity. IoT sensors in the fields capture vital data about temperature, humidity, PH levels in the soil, the presence of insects, or the threat of a fungus or other disease that could kill a coffee plant. The data are analyzed, then converted into usable insights that help farmers operate more efficiently and more profitably. 

In addition to the five 5G base stations located in Xinzhai village, China Mobile, the local operator, has installed 35 more to cover the surrounding area. This connectivity supports e-commerce, live broadcasts, video streaming, and all the IoT applications related to coffee growing. 

Powering the growth of the rural economy 

The case studies of Heshun Ancient Town and Xinzhai Coffee Village show how digital technology can accelerate rural growth. Building on this success will require efforts to fill digitalization gaps and bridge the “last mile,” especially in smaller villages. 

“Technologies such as 5G, cloud, and AI form the foundation for upgrading rural digital infrastructure,” said Ms. Su Ruiping, Director of the ICT Development Section of the Yunnan Provincial Management Bureau. “In the coming year and beyond, Yunnan aims to upgrade its digital infrastructure and narrow the digital divide. By continuously driving Xinzhai, Baoshan, and other parts of Yunnan forward in the digital arena, we can serve as a model of economic development for the rest of China, and the rest of the world.” 

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