Policy support and strong demand have seen the number of facilities soar in recent years
Pushing open a wooden door, Zhang Feng, a 55-year-old engineer, was entranced and could almost believe he was back in the house where he spent his childhood. Touching a decrepit antique locker, he remembered being reprimanded by his mother for stealing snacks as a small boy.
"I was raised in a village in Zhejiang province, but I moved to Hangzhou, the provincial capital, when I was 7," he said. "I still miss my early life in the village, the fresh air and the cute animals, even though decades have passed."
Zhang, who now lives in Shanghai, had reserved a rural homestay-countryside accommodations for visitors, usually provided by local residents-for his family in Zhejiang's Mogan Mountains during the Spring Festival holiday.
"I really appreciate the high-quality service, but I feel there is something missing-the human touch. The furniture and decorations resemble old-fashioned pieces that rural families used, but the service was modern, like the medium well-cooked beef provided for lunch rather than baked sweet potatoes. It's a little awkward, and contrary to the environment," he said.
"It's like a paradox in that the homestay seems like a modern luxury hotel wrapped up in a rural landscape," he said.
The number of rural homestays has soared in recent years as a result of surging demand for leisure facilities, and policy support from the government aimed at revitalizing the countryside.
According to a report by the China Tourism Association, the number of homestays had surged to about 100,000 by the end of 2017, from 100,000 the previous year.
At a conference in November, Luo Shugang, minister of culture and tourism, said the rural homestay market is expected to reach 36.3 billion yuan ($5.4 billion) next year, an annual rise of 16 percent.
However, the sector's development has brought problems, such as a lack of diversity, overpricing and concerns about fire safety, privacy protection and environmental damage.
"The surging rural homestay market shows that we have great demand, but also indicates an undesirable tendency for investors to rush into the sector," said Lin Zhanglin, vice-president of Kchange Tourism Group, an industry researcher and consultancy.
A representative of Airbnb, an online hospitality and lodgings provider that entered the Chinese market in 2015, said homestays registered with the platform covered about 1,100 counties and villages, and rural homestays accounted for 22 percent of them by early October.
For example, East China's Zhejiang, which is recognized as one of the leaders in the sector, was home to more than 16,000 rural facilities offering about 15,000 rooms, by the end of 2017, according to a report on homestay development conducted by the provincial department of culture and tourism.
"It (sectoral development) will be rather a long process because the customers will eventually decide which homestays are the best," Lin said. "As to overpricing at some luxury homestays, that's being mainly ascribed to their locations."
Yao Jiangbo, a 47-year-old who has invested in a facility in Shanggaowu, a village in Zhejiang, said rural homestays are one of the best ways to help incomes in the countryside rise to equal those in urban areas, but investors are split over the best designs.