Naked Castle, a resort developed by the Naked Group, sits atop a hill in the Mogan Mountain area of Deqing, Zhejiang province. （Photo/China Daily）
Eco-friendly 'hill stations' blossom in wake of visionary Naked resort pioneer in Zhejiang
White-collar workers in big cities are turning to the natural beauty of the countryside on weekends to enjoy a break, and decompress from the pressures of urban life in the process.
Deqing county in Zhejiang province, which offers beautiful landscapes and other advantages in the heart of the Yangtze River Delta, is a destination of choice for nearby urban residents. It takes less than two hours to drive to Deqing from Shanghai or Hangzhou, the provincial capital.
Unlike others who offer homestays in small villages, the farmers catering to tourists in Deqing describe what they do as "agritainment", a concept that has drawn foreign investors. Deqing's agritainment may cost more than elsewhere, but it also features a higher level of service and a better tourist experience than most, officials say.
"The nightly room rate is over 1,000 yuan ($160), and you'd better book months in advance," said Wang Qinying, head of the Deqing county government.
Guests at farms are mostly white-collar workers－both from home and abroad.
Grant Horsfield, a South African businessman, is the earliest developer of Deqing's agritainment industry. He is better known by locals as Gao Tiancheng. He came to Deqing in 2007.
Gao was born in a small village in South Africa's Western Cape province and didn't travel to a city until he was 12 years old.
"I am actually the son of farmer," he said in Chinese. Now he is the founder and chairman of Naked Group, a luxury resort developer in China.
When he started his first business in South Africa 20 years ago, he was asked in an interview about what he did, and why. He answered: "I hope to sit at a bar. Someone is talking about my product. They will be happy because I changed their life."
In 2005 Gao came to China as vice-president of marketing for a South African investment company in Shanghai. Despite being well-paid, he always felt homesick for nature and the idyllic life that he had known since childhood.
"There is more to life than just working," Gao said. In his philosophy of life, people are put on the earth to enjoy the wonderful things the creator made. By contrast, he said the concrete jungle of Shanghai seems suffocating and meaningless.
In 2007 he determined that he would go back to South Africa. But a trip to Deqing's Mogan Mountain changed his mind. Lost on the mountain, he bumped into a land of idyllic beauty－a village called Laoling. There were only about 20 residents, all elderly, and many cottages had been abandoned as young people had left the hamlet. Yet the good environment and natural scenery made Gao feel at home－and he soon saw a business opportunity.
"If I could do something to be happy and also do some business, that's a good thing," he said.
He rented six cottages at 10,000 yuan a year each for 15 years and started his first business in China－homestays. The locals at the time thought Gao was completely mad.
After rebuilding the cottages with the help of his architect wife, Delphine Yip, who earned her master's degree at Harvard University, the place become a popular holiday resort. Though a room costs more than 1,500 yuan per night, the resort is popular with customers from Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Later, Gao built a luxury ecological resort－Naked Stables－in Deqing in 2009, which covers an area of 12,600 square meters of mostly woodland.
"The resort must protect the environment and especially the woods. So we just provide point-to-point construction land for the resort's villas. The rest of the land is rented to Gao," Wang said.
Thirty villas were constructed using insulated panels.
"The villas are built using a steel-frame structure. The main materials were made in other cities and assembled here," said Zhu Yan, vice-president of special relations in Naked Group. "The houses can be dismantled without harming the woods."
It's the first time the construction technique has been used in China, Zhu said.
Naked Stables opened in 2010, and it obtained LEED Platinum certification from the US Green Building Council in 2013.
For Gao, the prime principle is that no one is allowed to harm his resort－especially its environment. The buildings, which combine African and Asian characteristics, have made Naked Stables a resort distinct from others in Deqing.
In 2017, Gao's latest resort rose from a collapsed castle that was built by Scottish missionary Duncan Main in 1910. It was called Naked Castle. It took Gao four years to finish the project, at a cost of more than 200 million yuan. Over the past 10 years, Gao's Naked brand resorts have achieved fame nationwide.
Shannon Huang, chief marketing officer for a French home furnishings company in Shanghai, planned to enjoy a holiday at Naked Stables three years ago, when her son was 3 months old.
"It was a pity that we could not manage to book a room, even days before my holiday," she said.
At the end of February, she and her small family were able to spend a night in Naked Castle－for 4,500 yuan. "The rooms are expensive, but I think it's worth it," Huang said.
In her eyes, Naked Castle is an ideal place to play with her son.
"In the past, when we thought about spending time with our 3-year-old, we would choose five-star hotels with entertainment facilities for kids. Naked Castle is not that noisy, and the kids have plenty of recreational activities to have fun."