Asia's bling era is giving way to a new wave of luxury hotels embracing historic architecture and local heritage.
It used to be that Chinese luxury consumers wanted the new and the shiny, but a new generation of sophisticated, millennial travelers is increasingly seeking out the old and the authentic. Outbound Chinese tourists value local, cultural and historical experiences more now than ever before, and are choosing places to stay that offer them this, according to a recent study by Hotels.com and market research firm Ipsos. Back in China, too, heritage and ancient architecture in the hospitality industry seem to be enjoying a growing currency and appeal.
“Could history be the new luxury in China?” Lawrence Osborne asks in Travel + Leisure. “As fragments of the nation’s heritage become harder to find, their value is certainly appreciating in the eyes of a rising middle class.”
Shanghai’s latest big wave of high-end hotel openings has seen a number of properties pay heed to history and preservation. Among the most notable is the Capella Group’s Jian Ye Li hotel, an urban oasis in one of the largest remaining collection of shikumen, Shanghai’s distinctive lane houses that blend European and Chinese architecture. The hotel is housed in buildings originally constructed by a French real-estate company in the 1930s. Architectural firm John Portman & Associates was tasked with restoration for the hotel project, opened last year, and has transformed the two- to three-story former residences into 55 villas, 40 apartments, a spa, a restaurant and lifestyle shops.
While this is definitely not the first hotel brand to debut a heritage-focused property in China, it’s arguably one of the most referenced in the country’s most futuristic city. The trend towards heritage-focused properties has also become notable in the United States in recent years, as millennial travelers forgo cookie-cutter accommodation in favor of hotels (and Airbnbs) offering unique experiences with local flavor and character, or what Todd Sachse of Lodging magazine calls the “hospitality holy grail: an appealing hotel property with a memorable and defining sense of place.”
But in China, zeal for urbanization has produced endless rows of homogeneous apartment blocks in the country’s rapidly developing cities, while the government’s support for contemporary architecture creates impressive developments like Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy Soho complex and Paul Andreu’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Preservation hasn’t exactly been a priority, and where it has been attempted, the results have often caused heated debate.
In the last few years, however, Shanghai has been hailed for its municipal government’s preservation capabilities, and for apparent good reason. Donovan Rypkema of Heritage Strategies International told the South China Morning Post that protecting historic character and charm has economic benefits for both the city and its consumers. “When, today, cities are competing not just with other cities in their country or region, but literally every other city in the world, those cities that become more and more like other places, rather than highlighting their differentiation, are going to ultimately become less competitive,” Rypkema said.
It’s this historic advantage that lends prestige to new properties like the Bulgari Hotel Shanghai, which is part of the Suhe Creek riverside revitalization development, just minutes from the celebrated Bund waterfront area. Next to the skyscraper that houses the hotel’s Italian-designed rooms sits Shanghai’s historic Chamber of Commerce building. Built in 1916, it has been refurbished and is now home to Bulgari’s fine dining Chinese restaurant, whiskey bar, and ballroom.
The nearby Shanghai Edition hotel towers above Nanjing Road, a must-visit for shopping, in all its art deco glory. Here, the old building is “fused” to a new one—walking inside, one would hardly realize that half of the hotel used to be the headquarters of an electrical power company. The structure was built in 1929, and the hotel has successfully preserved the original brickwork, including the original window frames.
Just outside the city, one new resort getaway makes historical preservation much more of a talking point. At Amanyangyun, named one of the world’s greatest places by Time magazine this year, guests can admire thousands of old camphor trees. The trees were relocated by billionaire entrepreneur Ma Dadongfrom his hometown, a Fuzhou village that was destroyed for the construction of a new reservoir. As well as the camphor trees, approximately 50 Ming and Qing-style buildings were also carefully disassembled and relocated, and now some of them serve as suites alongside more contemporary constructions. Travelers can take part in experiences such as calligraphy lessons and tea ceremonies to enhance and complement their journey back in time.
For more information on Chinese travelers, see our China Outbound report.