The two amateur photographers stood on a hill overlooking the sparkling river in this remote alpine park, waiting for nomads to emerge from their white yurts and herd cows across a bridge.
The men, both age 60, were driving on a one-month road trip through the western region of Xinjiang to capture scenes like this one.
“Don’t listen to what other people say about Xinjiang and don’t believe what you read,” said Sun Jingchuan, a retired aircraft maintenance worker from Sichuan Province in southwest China. “It’s very safe here.”
Many other Chinese would dispute that assessment. This year, after a stream of news reports of rioting, terrorist attacks and deadly police shootings linked to ethnic conflict in towns across Xinjiang, tourism has plummeted, the first drop in 20 years.
Xinjiang, the size of Western Europe, has long been considered one of China’s most exotic destinations. Chinese tourists, usually traveling in tour groups, visit the grasslands and Siberian forests here in the north and desert oasis towns in the south, along the old Silk Road.
Among the locals, an estimated 1.5 million people have some tie to Xinjiang’s tourism economy, and many were hoping for a big surge in visitor numbers during the National Day holiday week in China, which began Wednesday. But given reports in late September of dozens killed in clashes, there is little expectation that the numbers will match those of previous years.
On the morning Mr. Sun and his friend were photographing cows and Kazakh nomads, a report on an official Xinjiang news website said multiple explosions days earlier in Luntai County had killed two people and wounded many others. The website later reported that 40 rioters had died — some were shot by the police, others blew themselves up — while six civilians and four police officers and auxiliary employees were killed. Radio Free Asia, financed by the United States government, said the attackers were furious over land seizures by officials. It was the deadliest burst of violence in Xinjiang in weeks, but was not atypical.
In the first half of this year, visits from domestic tourists dropped 7 percent, to 20 million, compared to the same period last year, according to official statistics. The revenue from domestic tourists fell nearly 6 percent, to $3.5 billion.
Foreign tourism, which is a fraction of the total, also dropped, by nearly 1 percent, to 619,300, with revenue falling 1 percent, to $161 million. The Xinjiang Regional Tourism Bureau blames “influences from recent terrorist attacks” for the downturn.
In early August, some Chinese-language news websites published an open letter deploring the “great harm” done to the Xinjiang tourism industry by “violent terrorism attacks.” The letter said it represented the 400,000 people directly employed in Xinjiang tourism. Shen Qiao, the deputy chief editor of the Xinjiang bureau of the official Xinhua news agency, said that “people from the mainland feel scared when talking about Xinjiang.”
On online travel forums, the question “Is it safe to travel in Xinjiang?” is common. On one forum, people wrote that it was better to go to northern Xinjiang, where there are fewer Uighurs, a minority ethnic group whose clashes with the Han majority account for much of the violence, and more Kazakhs, Mongolians and other ethnic minorities. Violence in Urumqi, the regional capital, and in the south has been greater.
So desperate are Xinjiang officials to draw tourists that they issued $3.2 million worth of “travel cards” from January to April to tourists visiting with tour groups. The cards, worth $80 each, could be used to pay for hotels, attractions and local products.
Many Han have long held negative stereotypes of Uighurs, as petty thieves, for example, but attitudes hardened after rioting in 2009 in Urumqi resulted in at least 200 deaths, most of them Han. Uighurs say much of their anger grows from long-running discrimination by the Han. The government blames Uighur separatists for most of the attacks.
Even in northern Xinjiang, far from the Uighur heartland, tourism workers say business is suffering. “This year has been slow,” said Chen Yan, 37, a masseuse from Sichuan who works every summer at a hotel in Burqin, a mostly Kazakh town that is the gateway to Kanas Lake.
Ms. Chen said she had made about $650 a month this season, compared with about $1,000 a month last summer, earnings that help support a 14-year-old son and a husband who does odd jobs, both in Sichuan.
A Kazakh driver in the town, Sailin, said, “Each year, business gets worse.”
As Kanas Lake has become more popular with tourists in recent years — in part because of the legend of a Lochness-style monster that lurks in the waters — hotel construction has boomed in the park and on its periphery. But managers say occupancy rates are low this year.
At the lake, dozens of visitors boarded white speedboats one afternoon for a tour. But in past years, there were many more people, said Sultanate, a Kazakh man who worked at the park entrance. “The captain of one of the boats spends all day wiping the windows,” he said.
Employees at Koktokay, or Kekutuohai in Chinese, a park in the far north, said they had noticed a decline in visitors from outside Xinjiang.
But overall numbers are up this year compared to last, reflecting an increase in visitors from Xinjiang, possibly because more are choosing to visit the north since it has fewer Uighurs.
There were exceptions, of course. One afternoon, a group of seven men who worked for Baosteel Group in different parts of the country rode together on a golf cart through the park’s central valley, carved by the Irtysh River as it flows to the Arctic Ocean.
On a bus ride, a 30-year-old woman from Zhejiang Province who was traveling with friends for three months across Xinjiang, Tibet and Nepal said the park was beautiful, but other parts of Xinjiang held less appeal. “I’m afraid Kashgar is too dangerous,” she said, referring to the fabled Uighur caravan town in the south that has been a site of attacks.
Mr. Sun, the photographer in the Kanas Lake area, said only a handful of Uighurs were to blame. “In southern Xinjiang, a few violent individuals were able to coerce others into taking part in violence,” he said. “One person would come to your home and say, ‘You’re a Uighur — do this or I’ll put a knife to the throat of your mother or sister.’ ”
He had waited for the morning to get the shot of cows crossing the bridge, but they had not budged from their pasture. He packed up his photo equipment and walked with his friend to their car to drive to an ethnic Tuvan village. “Next year, we’ll go to southern Xinjiang,” he said. “I’ve never been there.”