Xi'an in Shaanxi Province, known as a world-famous destination for traveling, boasts such world-renowned spots as the Terracotta Warriors and the Ming Dynasty city walls. (Photo provided to China Daily)
China's ancient capital has long been a draw for snap-happy visitors, but the city's latest charm offensive is also attracting emerging industries.
A grand entrance ceremony takes place at Xi'an's Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) city walls every day, as the ancient capital of China opens its spectacularly preserved South Gate to the masses with great pomp and pageantry, as it would have done for VIPs in the olden days.
Hoards of performers stage a Tang Dynasty-style (618-907) welcome - the period in which the original walls were built - as they lead crowds of tourists armed with cameras through the park, over the bridge and into the city proper.
Unfortunately, when I was last in town, I arrived late to the event and had to watch from afar, clinging onto the park railings as I craned my neck to take in the proceedings, like a peasant of times past stretching for a glimpse of those lucky enough - or in this case punctual enough - to be treated to such an honorable reception.
But, my hapless position on the sidelines provided me with a glimpse of the radical change of the times that today everyone is welcomed and celebrated, especially in the last 40 years of opening-up.
Xi'an, a "natural museum" that served as China's capital for 1,100 years and is home to the world-renowned Terracotta Warriors, is already known as a "world-famous destination for traveling", according to the local tourism board's deputy head, Kang Lifeng. But there is still significant work underway to further open up the city to the world.
Xi'an has long been a leader in this regard, and, as Kang says, it was one of the first cities on the Chinese mainland to open its gates to international visitors. Ongoing initiatives include improving English-language signage, making the city's visa-free policy more competitive and easier to use, as well as organizing foreigner-focused activities that draw on and combine Western and Eastern cultural elements.
On this, my third trip to Xi'an, I noticed many new features since my last visit two years ago.
The city is more alive at night than ever, thanks to the bright lights that keep the shops and streets open until the early hours and illuminate the city's many architectural wonders.
As I wandered through the Muslim quarter that lies alongside the 600-year-old Drum Tower, the vast diversity of cuisine and culture was essentially floodlit, helping locals and visitors alike to navigate along the bustling alleyways and the vendors to achieve a roaring trade.
An army of cleaners and sweepers were out keeping the city in tip-top condition, so it always has its best foot forward for snap-happy tourists. I also noticed many more foreign visitors in the mix, a clearer sign than any of Xi'an's continuing opening-up.
You can feel the significance tourism plays by just walking through the city. Everywhere there are well-kept parks, beautified walkways, time-honored local brands and immaculately maintained relics from dynasties long-since overthrown.
Of course, these also improve the quality of life for local residents, who hit the streets in droves in the evenings, which meant I was hard pressed to find a route through all the dancing couples. Square dancing, as it is known, is a common sight in most Chinese cities, but the diversity of cultures and the sheer number of participants beat anything I'd ever seen.
Innovative new ideas, originally thought up to help tourists, are also improving local lifestyles. The tourism bureau is working with internet giant Baidu on a map app that shows the nearest toilets - the first of its kind in the country. Around 450 locations are already live on the app and another 650 or so are set to join in the next three months, with incentives offered for hotels to open up their facilities for passers-by.
Kang says that last year Xi'an housed, fed and entertained 180 million tourists both from home and abroad, and the city provides employment for 20,000 tour guides. Unsurprisingly then, the tourism industry makes up a healthy portion of the city's economy, contributing a hefty 8.6 percent to GDP last year. That's roughly equivalent to the amount generated by Chinese high-tech companies fueling the emerging industries sector.
And those numbers say a lot about the Xi'an of today. While it is the rich heritage that draws visitors, like me, in their hundreds of millions every year, the city's new innovative and creative sectors are propelling it toward becoming a modern global metropolis, a key self-set goal.
As a tourist in the city, it's becoming easier to see how these two central characteristics are blending to create a new Xi'an - harnessing an innovative spirit to preserve and popularize its historical roots.