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YINCHUAN, China — China’s government is pouring billions of dollars into a lavish Islamic theme park to attract Muslim tourists and boost its image in the Arab world.
All that’s missing are visitors.
The attraction boasts buildings that resemble the Taj Mahal and Istanbul's Blue Mosque — although these days it is less a "AAAA-rated national tourist site," as advertised, than a massive construction site.
The China Hui Culture Park is being expanded as part of a plan to transform a dusty plain in central Ningxia province into a tourism mecca.
The facility opened in 2005 but is less a religious experience than a large-scale promotional display for the country’s largest Muslim group, the Hui.
Hui are ethnically Chinese, politically compliant and speak Mandarin, which helps ensure government approval for the practice of a state-sanctioned version of Islam in what is officially an atheist country.
“Coming here could help Arab people to know Chinese culture,” Ma Guojing told NBC News. The local teacher was one of the few people willing to navigate the grime and heavy equipment during a recent visit.
The parking lot was virtually empty, and ticket prices had been reduced from about $12 to $9. A booth attendant said the price cut was because of the ongoing construction.
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Many of the attractions, such as the Arabian-themed dance and laser show, are either yet to be built or have been closed.
Beyond the lavish domed main gate, visitors are diverted along a path past a small temporary museum and a deserted restaurant to where dancers at the Hui “model village” sit waiting for an audience.
“Tourists come from all over the country, even the world to learn about Hui culture,” one folk singer said.
However, only two people watched the subsequent 20-minute performance.
Visitors wanting to take a look at the opulent Golden Palace, designed to give visitors the experience of visiting a mosque, had to cross a stretch of churned earth busy with backhoes and dump trucks.
Park officials would not comment on ticket sales, but stressed they expect to see a million visitors a year once the expansion is complete.
Optimistically, Emirates Airlines recently inaugurated direct flights between Dubai and Yinchuan, where the local airport is undergoing a 900,000-square foot expansion to accommodate the expected rush.