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Lost horizon found
By Chen Liang (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-11-11 07:53


Turquoise-blue waters and pristine, evergreen forests make Potatso National Park, in Yunnan province, a magnet for tourists from home and abroad. Photos by Chen Liang

Mainstream tourists have only just discovered the natural beauty of Shudu Lake in Shangri-La county, Diqing Tibet autonomous prefecture. The turquoise-blue waters and the pristine, evergreen forests are a sight to behold and for the past decade, local authorities have tried various ways to attract more visitors.

The biggest campaign occurred in 2001, when Zhongdian was renamed Shangri-La, after the fictional land in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon, in an effort to promote tourism in the area in northwestern Yunnan province.

But as the tourism campaign for the region began to take shape, disaster struck Shudu Lake in the most ironic way.

A private developer had started breeding several different kinds of exotic carp in the lake to attract more visitors, especially anglers. But the experiment backfired and wiped out the local fish in the lake. Today these native fish can only be found in the neighboring Bita Lake, another popular tourist destination.

The local government realized the damage that had been done and took action. The private developer's managerial authority was canceled and the two lakes have been upgraded into Potatso National Park, together with adjoining pastureland, mountains and forests.

In June last year, the 1,000-sq-km park, 22 km west of the town of Shangri-La, became China's first national park. "It's truly the first successful step of our efforts to introduce the concept of a national park into China," says Chen Jie, Yunnan program director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international non-governmental conservation organization based in the United States. "It means Yunnan has started blending tourism development with nature protection."

The local government invited TNC to help plan a "biodiversity special zone" at another site in Diqing in 2004. The two sides held several meetings on ecotourism and reserve managers toured national parks in the United States and New Zealand for ideas.

In 2006, the research office of Yunnan provincial government and the China Program of TNC published a book on national parks and started promoting the concept in the province. In the same year, the Diqing government decided to build up Potatso National Park and invited Southwest Forestry University to make a master plan.

At that time, Chen says, Shudu Lake was not a protected area and although Bita Lake is a provincial reserve, "it was short of funds and lacks the resources needed to better protect the area".

"There were only 18 employees in our reserve," says Ding Wenhai, head of the reserve's administrative office. "We have to face 200,000 tourists a year and make regular patrols and we were unable to put local horse keepers from nearby Tibetan villages under effective management, monitor our ecosystem and make some scientific research."

As a result, he says, hundreds of horses came to the reserve daily to cater for tourists but the effect was damaging. "They trod all over our wetlands and their droppings contaminated the water," Chen says.

"Local government and communities haven't benefited much from tourism. Our major income is from entrance tickets, which was priced originally at only 5 yuan per person and later increased to 30 yuan."

In 2006, Ding became deputy director of Potatso National Park Tourism Development Company and began building up the park.

The new park is 10 times bigger than the Bita Lake reserve.

"That means we can put more unprotected primitive forests and pasturelands under protection by establishing the park," Chen says.

About 70 km of blacktop roads have been built to connect the park's two major scenic spots, Shudu and Bita lakes. The roads also serve as fire separation strips. Plank roads stretch 10 km along the crystal-clear lakes to protect the surrounding wetlands.

Seven carefully designed "green toilets" are also used to minimize pollution. Completely powered by solar panels, these clean restrooms feature waterless urinals, take-away bag toilets and emit the smell of cedar rather than the more common public restroom odor.

Sixty-five green-colored shuttle buses, meeting Euro III emissions standards, can take visitors to scenic spots scattered in the park, while private cars must be left behind at the park entrance.

On Oct 15 this year, two new-type electric boats were delivered to the park from Shanghai and will soon replace the two motorboats serving on the Bita Lake.

Also, the local villagers' horse rentals have been banned, Ding says.

"But the park has spent 3 million yuan ($439,800) every year in compensating the villagers' losses from the park's limitations on horse rentals and overgrazing," he says.

"Among 2,000 people living in and close to the park, 504 who live within the park, will receive compensation of 2,000 yuan per person per year."

Meanwhile, the park has hired more than 200 employees. Most of them, Ding says, are from the local Tibetan communities.

"We require that their levels of education are higher than primary school," he says. "Only after we failed to find enough qualified people at the neighboring communities did we turn to other parts of the county."

In 2007, the park's income was over 100 million yuan ($14.6 million). Good tour guides can earn 4,000-5,000 yuan a month in the peak season, the director says. And the employees have various training opportunities.

"TNC has often sent experts to train our employees," he says. "We sent 60 of our workers to study at Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area in Sichuan province last year."

The park has earned 80 million yuan so far in this year. With more income, the park can invest more in conservation.

"Every year we will pay 60-70 million yuan off our 200-million loan from bank," Ding says. "But we will still give 500,000 to 600,000 yuan from our profits to the Bita Lake reserve, which has been a Ramsar site of Wetlands of International Importance."

Without the responsibility of tourism management, the reserve rangers can focus on their regular patrols, monitoring and research.

After a four-year effort, the reserve also began breeding local fish after cooperating with Kunming Zoology Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"In the near future, we will promote breeding of the fish in the local communities," Ding says. "It might benefit both the local economy and the endangered species' survival."

The park's attention to the slightest environmental impact resulting from infrastructure can be seen at nearly every step.

The visitors' reception center is built with wood and stone in local Tibetan style; walking trails that circle the lakes and traverse wetlands are slightly elevated to permit water-flow and allow light penetration to foster vegetation growth beneath the walkways; garbage bins, park maps, road signs, and signs about the area's unique fauna and flora are everywhere.

Walking on the plank roads for only a few minutes, visitors can see wild ducks feeding in Shudu Lake and crows strolling on the plank road.

At the park's highest lookout, which is over 4,000 m above sea level, one can see Bita Lake encircled by marshes and forests. The snowy peaks of the Tianbao Mountains loom above the tree line in the distance.

At three scenic spots around Shudu Lake, local Tibetan villagers sell barbecue corn, potato and meat and drinks to visitors.

Zaxi Pecu says they were all from Luorong village near the lake. Located within the park, it has 30 families or more than 150 residents.

He says village families run their barbecue businesses, in turns - one family, one day, one scenic spot.

"The business depends on both the season and which spot you go," the 30-year-old says. "On the worst day, I can barely earn 300 yuan."

Last year, his family earned 10,000 yuan from tourism and keeps 20 yaks. "I failed to get a job at the park because I only graduated from primary school," he says. "Now we ask our children to work hard at their studies, so as to find a job at the park in the future."

(China Daily 11/11/2008 page18)