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HUIZHOU, China (Reuters) - A $940 million Chinese clone of one of Austria's most picturesque villages, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hallstatt, recently opened its doors to visitors in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong amidst some controversy.
In a nation known for its skill in manufacturing knock-offs ranging iPhones to Hermes Birkins, the replica village is perhaps the most ambitious attempt at Chinese reproduction yet.
The "Made in China" version of the lakeside European village known for tourism and salt includes an exact replica of its church clock tower, European style wooden houses and other properties that will be sold to investors.
The project, conceived by a Chinese mining tycoon, initially sparked outrage and surprise among some Hallstatt villagers, who weren't at first aware of the attempt to copy their unique, centuries-old home.
Half an hour's ride away from the gritty city of Huizhou, close to China's "world factory" of the Pearl River Delta, China's Hallstatt hopes to become a new tourist attraction.
Disney-themed photo spots are scattered around the village's main plaza, which is modeled after Hallstatt's marketplace.
"The moment I stepped into here, I felt I was in Europe," said 22-year-old Zhu Bin, a Huizhou resident. "The security guards wear nice costumes. All the houses are built in European style."
Taking up one million square meters (yards), cranes and construction sites spread across barren hills above the gabled houses, promising an expansion of the current town.
Despite the initial mixed response, local authorities in Hallstatt have since softened their stance, seeing a rare, marketing opportunity at the heart of one of the world's fastest growing tourism markets.
"It was not so controversial. We were only surprised that a small village in Austria was built, and now we are very proud that it happened," said Hallstatts Mayor Alexander Scheutz, who flew with an Austrian delegation to mark the official opening and signed documents promising future cultural ties.
Visitors and journalists filming on site last Friday were asked to leave shortly before Scheutz's unannounced visit.
Director of Tourism Hallstatt, Pamela Binder, said Hallstatt had made peace with its Chinese replica.
"First we were a bit insecure. Why did it come to replicate Hallstatt, and then we became lucky and proud," Binder said.
Fewer than 50 Chinese tourists visited Hallstatt in 2005, but now thousands fly to the Austrian town every year, according to officials from the Austrian delegation in China.
But some Hallstadt residents remained unconvinced.
"I don´t think that it is a good idea. Hallstatt is just unique with its culture and traditions. You cannot copy that. I saw a report and the photos, and the copy seems different. In my opinion it is unacceptable," said resident Karin Höll.
Reporting by Venus Wu, Editing by James Pomfret and Elaine Lies