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Chinese Give Europe's "Dying Cities" New Lease of Life

CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO, ITALY, (JAMIE DETTMER-VOANEWS).- At first it was just a trickle of mainly Chinese tourists arriving to make their way to the dying city' of Civita di Bagnoregio. Then it became a flood.

Civita, which dates back to Etruscan times and is perched on a small plateau of progressively eroding volcanic stone, will likely be visited this year by 800,000 tourists — a large number of them Chinese. When the Chinese first started arriving they cut an incongruous sight in sleepy northern Lazio, where locals blinked in surprise at the nationality of the visitors.

The Chinese — with Taiwanese and small numbers of Koreans in tow — have transformed the economic prospects of the town. Local residents had long been resigned to their marginalization in the global economy and were used to seeing their young departing for jobs elsewhere.

Now youngsters are beginning to stay to cater to the unexpected wave of tourism.

From Europe's villages to the grand capitals of London, Paris and Rome, there has been an explosion in the number of Chinese tourists — the most visible sign of China's expanding economic presence in Europe, one both welcomed and feared.

In 2017, more than six million Chinese citizens visited European countries, according to a report by the China Tourism Academy and the Chinese online travel agency Ctrip. European authorities estimate the numbers are higher — more like 10 million. Tourism from China to European Union countries has tripled in the past 10 years and has risen more than from any other major non-EU countries, such as the United States, Russia or Brazil, according to Eurostat, the European Union's statistics agency. The most popular European destinations for the Chinese are Britain, Italy, France, Germany and Spain.

The numbers are expected to continue to surge in 2018, which marks the China-EU Tourism Year, a marketing initiative launched by Brussels and Beijing.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about the rapid growth — which is straining some European airports and adding to the infrastructure challenges of major tourist sites. Stratfor, an American geopolitical intelligence company, described Chinese tourists in a July report as "China's unlikely weapon," arguing they have become an "unexpected tool of statecraft that China may leverage to exert its influence."

"Beijing has already brandished the carrot and the stick of access to Chinese consumers for agricultural, luxury and manufactured goods. But one overlooked tactic is its control over how many of its citizens it allows to go abroad and where they can visit. Tourism is an unlikely tool of statecraft, but the massive growth in the number of outbound Chinese travelers means their combined economic weight can have sharp consequences," Stratfor said.

The geopolitical risk company said, "(T)he most rudimentary lever Beijing has to direct tourism flows is by granting countries Approved Destination Status. This designation regulates where Chinese package tour groups are authorized to go and how tours are marketed in mainland China."

China has already used access to its lucrative tourism market to try to further geopolitical goals overseas, says Stratfor, notably last year when it depressed by more than half the number of Chinese tourists traveling to South Korea to punish Seoul for deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.

That isn't the view in Brussels. The EU Commission has welcomed the influx, saying, "Tourism has the potential to contribute towards employment and economic growth, as well as to development in rural, peripheral or less-developed areas."

The small Lazio town of Bagnoregio, once a suburb of Civita, is an example.

Ninety kilometers northwest of the Italian capital, Rome, it hadn't even seriously bothered to try to refashion itself, like so many other towns in the depressed Italian heartland, to offset the decline in commercial agriculture.

The 2008 financial crash sent Lazio's fledgling tourism industry into a tailspin further knocking the confidence of locals and prompting more of the young to flee. "We get tourists from everywhere now but the largest number are Chinese and they have brought money into the town and the tourism has increased the energy here," says 45-year-old Roberta Mencarelli, the manager of Romantica Pucci, which is both a bed-and-breakfast and a restaurant.

"There used to be only two restaurants in town — now there are ten," she told VOA between serving lunch to Chinese tourists. Outside, in the scorching July sun, and as a nearby church bell tolled the hour, more camera-wielding parties of mainly Chinese tourists trudged towards Civita. Mencarelli has been learning some Mandarin Chinese.

The influx of Chinese tourists was mainly prompted by the popular Japanese animator and movie director Hayao Miyazaki, who used Civita as a backdrop for the Oscar-award winning feature film, The Enchanted City. Because of a big jump in revenue, partly from fees to visit Civita, which has an all-year round population of seven, rising to 100 in the summer, the municipality has been able to discontinue raising some taxes from Bagnoregio's nearly 4,000 residents.

And the municipality has also become more entrepreneurial. Last year, the mayor, Francesco Bigiotti, became an Airbnb host, listing the first public building on the travel platform. "Casa d'Artista," or Home of the Artist, a historically significant building in Civita, was restored in partnership between Airbnb and Bagnoregio. The property will host artists-in-residence and art-lovers who want to stay for vacations. Profits will be plowed into the town's development fund.

But not all locals are happy. One pensioner, who would only give her name as Giovanna, bewailed what she described as an "invasion," saying it has upset the tranquility of the town and the rhythm of daily life, especially at weekends, when most activity in the town used to revolve around church.

She muttered: "Troppa gente (too many people)." And then added, eyeing this VOA reporter with rising alarm: "Si mettono di mezzo (they get in the way)."

Her complaint is echoed more loudly in some of Europe's most famous cities, like Venice, Barcelona and Paris, which are already overcrowded in vacation seasons. The surges in the numbers of tourists, boosted significantly by those coming from China and other Asian countries, will add to a deterioration in the quality of life of locals and over-strain infrastructure, critics say.

In a blog post earlier this year, Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), noted, "the growing number of sometimes violent protests by the inhabitants of destinations" who feel they are becoming dispossessed. Chinese tourists figure prominently in the complaints, he noted.

Just seven percent of Chinese citizens have passports, compared to 40 percent of Americans. That means, say industry experts, the potential for more growth is huge with China's population at 1.4 billion.COTRI has predicted that overseas trips by the Chinese will increase from 2017's 145 million to more than 400 million by 2030.

If accurate, that would mean in just over a decade the Chinese will account for a quarter of all global tourism.

The projections are exciting Europe's national tourism boards, all vying to grab as much of the Chinese tourism trade as they can. But Stratfor worries Chinese tourism, along with Beijing's forward-leaning investments in Europe, which includes a massive Belt and Road Initiative aimed at improving transport and connectivity between Europe and China, will result in Beijing wielding considerable political influence across the continent.

Photo: Jamie Dettmer-Voanews).

Russian War Games Seek to Cement Ties With China, Send Message to West

LONDON, (HENRY RIDGWELL-VOANEWS).- Russia is holding its largest military exercises since the Cold War in the far eastern part of the country, and for the first time it has invited contingents from China and Mongolia.

About 36,000 tanks and 300,000 Russian troops, a third of the country’s military personnel, are on maneuvers in the vast expanses of eastern Siberia. China has sent more than 3,000 troops.

The skies are patrolled by 1,000, aircraft, including strategic long-range bombers. In the Arctic and Pacific oceans, 80 Russian warships are conducting mock battles and landing drills.

Russian President Vladimir Putin took a front-row seat to observe the exercises Thursday and praised the relationship with the country’s eastern neighbors.

“I would like to say a special thank you to the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China and Mongolia. Our fraternity in arms has long and firm traditions,” Putin said.

Huge Russian War Games Seek to Cement Ties With China, Send Message to West

The war games, known as Vostok ’18, come as relations between Moscow and the West continue to worsen following the poisoning of a former double agent on British soil. Meanwhile the trade war between Beijing and Washington continues to deepen.

The exercises may be taking place in a remote corner of the world, but they have global resonance, said analyst Emily Ferris of London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

“As well as demonstrating to the West that it has this alliance with China, it’s also an opportunity for Russia to show what it’s learned from its military interventions, for example in Syria, for example in eastern Ukraine,” Ferris told VOA in an interview.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the United States and its allies to impose sanctions on Moscow.

“The Western sanctions have damaged Russia’s ability to get, for example, military components that it used to get from its Western partners. And so, Russia’s military in the meantime is undergoing a 10-year-long renovation and upgrade. And so, to pay for those parts, Russia is going to need to find alternative partners,” Ferris said.

The exercises coincide with the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, attended by several heads of state. With China engaged in a spiraling trade war with the United States, analysts say Moscow sees an opportunity to deepen relations with Beijing.

“They are politically becoming very close. Economically, the Russian-Chinese trade is booming, when other kinds of trade, especially in Russia, is not booming at all. And also, of course, now militarily, they are acting together as brothers-in-arms in military games that are basically aimed at the United States and its allies,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst based in Moscow.

Sources of tension

Ferris said there are also sources of tension in the relationship.

“Particularly the belt-and-road initiative of China’s that sort of bypasses Russia, especially because China is quite interested in countries like Ukraine and Belarus, and using its infrastructure as a gateway to Europe. I think Russia is quite suspicious of what China is planning,” she said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Tuesday that he sees “little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.” The military exercises come amid threats from Washington of more sanctions against Russia if it conducts an assault on Idlib, the last rebel-held area in Syria. The United Nations has warned of a potential massacre of civilians.

Shedding light on shallow waters

BARCELONA, (ESA).-Keeping an eye on our waters is more important than ever, as widespread drought continues to sweep Europe this summer. 

Earth’s changing sea levels are crucial indicators of how our environment is fairing, but monitoring it manually can be a labour-intensive, expensive, and at times even dangerous task. 

Coastal areas provide additional complications, as shifting seabeds and currents make creating accurate and consistent water depth maps – also known as bathymetry – almost impossible. 

Satellites are ideally placed to address this challenge, however.
Low-orbiting satellites equipped with light-measuring sensors can record how much light is reflected off the seabed, gathering and updating the information continually as they fly over. 

An ESA-backed group, led by TCarta, has developed a way of using this data to produce water depth maps, and make them available to anyone who could use them. 

Richard Flemmings, Operations Director for TCarta, said: “The team applies computer algorithms to satellite imagery from sources like Landsat, Sentinel-2 and DigitalGlobe’s WorldView constellation. 

“These algorithms analyse the images’ light frequency from different parts of the satellite’s spectral range, and work with existing points of reference, such as confirmed results drawn from similar readings elsewhere, and knowledge on how different types of seabed reflect the light. 

“These products are hosted on the Bathymetrics Data Portal, which provides ready-made, instantly available and high resolution bathymetry at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.” 

Different satellites can generate different resolution images, with Copernicus’s Sentinel-2 wide swath high-resolution multispectral imager producing around 10m, for example, although the portal also hosts resolutions of up to 2m. 

Detailed information on water levels that can be obtained immediately is extremely valuable for environmental agencies, but also has other uses.
Industries that conduct their business in or through the water require this kind of data to do so in the safest and most cost-effective manner. 

Energy infrastructure development, for example, requires up-to-date information on water depths over large areas to identify the best routes to lay pipes, while port construction needs reliable and long-term data for a concentrated location, in order to plan when and how the structure should be built. 

The Bathymetrics Data Portal was launched with help from ESA’s Business Applications programme, which co-funded an earlier, demonstration version.
ESA’s Business Applications programme is the mark of Europe’s best commercial ventures powered by Space. It is the commercial arm of the European Space Agency and aims to prove that space is open for business with the power to improve everyday life. 

Since the programme’s inception in 2008, ESA Business Applications has invested more than €200M in over 500 business ideas addressing markets in industries worldwide, like the Bathymetrics Data Portal. 

Typical funding ranges from €60k to €2M and is used from early stage feasibility studies to large-scale demonstration projects.

Copyright: ESA / TCarta