Flushed out in due time – Toilet timers at China’s UNESCO-listed tourist destination

Published Jun 14, 2024


By Lethiwe Nhlangothi

China’s Yungang Buddhist Grottoes has received over 3 million visitors since 2023 and is an extremely popular global tourist destination. However, it has recently received extra attention after a tourist sent a video to the local newspaper, Xiaoxiang Morning Herald, according to CNN.

With so many tourists visiting this UNESCO-listed World Heritage site, the toilets are used regularly. A video circulating on Chinese social media platforms and news sites shows digital timers above a row of toilet cubicles in a women's bathroom. Each cubicle displays the duration of time a person spends inside. When a cubicle is unoccupied the small LED display screen reads the word ‘empty’ in green, but if it’s in use it shows the number of minutes and seconds the person has been inside in red.

The video has sparked some controversy and reactions on Chinese social media platform, Weibo. Some of Weibo’s users suggested that the timers would discourage visitors from spending excessive time on their phones in the toilet, while others questioned the necessity of this concept.

A staff member at the heritage site assured Xiaoxiang Morning Herald that the timers were installed to keep up with the increase in the number of visitors, not to monitor the time people spend in the toilet. You probably wondering what happens when your time has run out.

Well, another staff member reassured that they don’t set a specific time limit of how long tourists can use the toilets. The digital timers are there to simply ensure the flow and “well-being of all guests in case some guests use the toilet for an extended period and an emergency occurs”.

Despite the staff’s reassurance of these timers being just a safety measure, this privacy-invading development still leaves visitors uncomfortable and is not a new concept. In 2020, a tech company in Beijing installed digital timers above toilet cubicles in their offices. One of the visitors said although they found the innovation to be technologically advanced, they did find it a bit embarrassing as it felt as though they were being monitored.

Bad publicity is still good publicity. Yungang Buddhist Grottoes has upgraded more than just its privacy-invading bathrooms. Recently, authorities have implemented new entertainment programs and integrated additional small-scale attractions within the vicinity to enhance the site’s appeal.