When Marco Polo traveled to Hangzhou about 700 years ago, he probably never dreamed a “Modern Marco Polo” would be named in his honor to promote the city to a global audience. The Hangzhou Tourism Commission yesterday named Swiss native Liam Bates the city’s newest ambassador after he was selected from thousands of candidates. For the next 365 days, Bates will work part time to promote the city, earning a 40,000 euro (US$54,750) salary in the process.
“Hangzhou is different from Beijing and Shanghai,” says the 26 years old. “It’s smaller and contains traditional cultural things and the original feeling of China. If you want to tour China, Hangzhou is a good place.”
To kick things off, Bates will be given a free 15-day trip to Hangzhou and surrounding cities. The “Marco Polo Revisits the Grand Canal” trip will retrace the famed Italian explorer’s route. The trip covers Hangzhou, Suzhou and Yangzhou along the Grand Canal, says Zhao Hongzhong, the commission’s deputy director.
Zhao says the trip is also designed to boost the Grand Canal’s application to gain UN world intangible cultural heritage status. The Grand Canal, extending from Beijing to Hangzhou, is the world’s longest artificial waterway in the world.
Bates, 26, is a television host and adventurer with strong ties to China. He first came to the country 10 years ago to study Chinese and kung fu. He speaks fluent Chinese and in 2010 won both the first and eloquence prizes in the Chinese Bridge language contest, which aired in front of a TV audience of nearly 300 million.
He has traveled to China many times. In 2009, he rode a motorbike from Lhasa in Tibet to Shanghai. Bates has already started his trip. He has been given tai chi lessons at Rouzhiyi Center of Tai Chi, which is next to the canal, and visited the Grand Canal Museum, where he spoke with craftsmen. He has also visited a temple and walked around several ancient buildings along the Grand Canal.
Bates says he is looking forward to “telling Westerners the stories of Hangzhou people” through his videos. His first video will be short and sweet — he plans to teach everyone how to pronounce Hangzhou correctly in a 20-second clip.
The Hangzhou Tourism Commission initiated the “Modern Marco Polo” competition over a year ago. “For many reasons Hangzhou is not as well known internationally as Beijing and Shanghai,” says Li Hong, director of the Hangzhou Tourism Commission. “There is a gap between the city’s tourism and others in the world. Our main goals are to raise awareness of Hangzhou and then improve the city’s service level.”
More than 25,000 candidates entered the competition with 700 applicants eventually being selected for further consideration.
Five candidates reached the final round. Bates was selected over a social media expert from Australia, a PhD holder in tourism from Romania, an American-born Chinese woman from Los Angeles who is a columnist and TV travel show host, and a traveler from Paris.
The commission carefully screened the applicants on their familiarity with China, social media presence and sense of adventure.
“Bates has a strong passion and deep understanding of China and Chinese culture,” says Li. “He is also quite an adventurer, boasts many followers on social media and he is good-looking.”
Li says the commission was looking for an active social network user who follows the Hangzhou tourism account on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest. They also wanted candidates to have completed the Hangzhou culture games on the various social media pages and earn enough credit — Bates had the top score. Each candidate also needed to make a video introduction and win many “likes” on Facebook. Finally, they needed to propose a great global marketing plan to promote Hangzhou.