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Sightseeing elevators restart at world heritage site
( 2003-09-06 15:00) (Beijing Today)

After lying idle for over ten months, three controversial sightseeing elevators at the World Heritage listed Zhangjiajie National Forest Park resumed operation early this month.

Zhangjiajie, in the north of south China¡¯s Hunan Province, is China¡¯s first national forest park, and was listed as a World Heritage site in 1992.

Tourist cliffhanger

The project to build the 126 million yuan elevator was launched in October 1999.

The glass elevators run along a cliff face in the north of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in Wulingyuan. Designed and operated by Bailong Elevator Company the structure consists of a 154-meter deep underground shaft and a 172-meter aboveground derrick.

Three double-story glass elevators run abreast up the side of the cliff to a plateau near Shuiraosimen, one of the key scenic spots in the park. It takes about two minutes to complete the journey from the base of the cliff to the top. Each elevator can carry 50 people per trip, with a total daily capacity of about 18,000 people.

Beijing Today reported on December 7, 2001, that according to Edmond Moukala, then program officer of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the local government had built the elevators without consulting the World Heritage Committee. Regardless of environmental impact, new constructions are forbidden at World Heritage nature sites, Moukala said at the time.

In 2001, the local government demolished several hundred buildings at Zhangjiajie in response to a warning from the World Heritage Committee in 1997 about commercial overdevelopment.

According to an elevator conductor, income from passengers is currently around 200,000 yuan per day. Mo Shengzhong, office director of Zhangjiajie Wulingyuan Taxation Bureau revealed, ¡°The local government levies a tax of about five percent of Bailong¡¯s income. That translates to 10,000 yuan a day, or about three million yuan ery year. It represents one twentieth of the local government¡¯s total annual revenue.¡±

Sun Delong, the president of Bailong, told the press, ¡°In two years, the company will become the local super tax payer.¡± He predict the tax paid by the company by that time would reach 10 million yuan.

An untimely halt

After operating for only three months, Bailong had to stop running the elevators in September 2002, at the request of the Ministry of Construction. According to a document released by the ministry at that time, the request was made due to concerns about the elevator¡¯s safety, rather than protection of the natural landscape.

In 1998, the Hunan Province Environmental Protection Bureau sanctioned the Bailong Elevator Project¡¯s Environmental Influence Evaluation Report, which was compiled in 1997. But the bureau was not involved n the suspending of the elevators¡¯ operatin last year, nor was it aware of the recent resumption of service.

"The bureau would not sanction the project if it was handed to us now. The project was approved before the local authorities carried out the demolition f those other nearby buildings,¡± Peng Hanshou, director of the Natural Protection Faculty of Zhangjiajie Environmental Protection Bureau, told CCTV. According to Peng, demolishing the elevators was the best way to solve the problem. He also pointed out that the color of the elevators was not consistent with their surrounding.

¡°The municipal environmental administration hasn¡¯t the right to order the demolition of the elevators,¡± Pengid. ¡°Only the Ministry of Construction has the power to make such a decision.¡±

Experts¡¯ view

According to the Landscape and Historic Relics Management Temporary Ordinance issued by the State Council, all buildings in the vicinity of listed sites and historic relics should be consistent with the surrounding. With the exception of necessary protection and related facilities, any construction in such areas is expressly forbidden.

Zhangjiajie is famous for its abundant quartzite stone. In fact the elevator is actually built against the side of a quartzite cliff.

Xie Ninggao, a professor from Beijing University, was invited to Zhangjiajie in 1999 to study the feasibility of building the elevators. He expressed his objection to the plan then, and continues to do so today. ¡°Hw can such devastating development be carried out in a protected national natural landscape area and ecology protection zone? From the point of view of science, industry and law, there would have been no problem had the project been refused permission in the first place.¡±

¡°The sightseeing elevators have destroyed the authenticity and integrity of the landscape. It¡¯s not only a problem of safety,¡± Xie stressed.

Permission to restart

As the president of Bailong Elevator Company Sun Delong said, the key reason the elevators were allowed to resume operation lay in the solving of the safety problem.

Sun told CCTV there was no reason why the elevators should not resume operation, since the company had obtained the necessary safety certification.

Yu Guoxin, vice president of Zhangjiajie Tourism Bureau, avoided answering directly a question by a CCTV reporter on whether the elevators had damaged the natural landscape. ¡°It¡¯s just like a baby. After it is born, it should be protected by the law and have the right to live healthily and happily,¡± he said, adding, ¡°We have to deal with such contraions, scrabbling for a living while owning such beautiful landscape.¡±

Sun Delong said, ¡°Without the elevator, tourists who wanted to visit these sites could not do so in one day, they would have to camp on the mountains Then there will be several thousand tents.¡±

Project chief engineer Zhuo Zhiyuan told Beijing Today, ¡°Such elevators are really convenient for tourists. But from the angle of environmental protection, they shouldn¡¯t he been erected.¡± However, he added, it was now too late to talk about whether the project should have been allowed or not. ¡°Otherwise, it will cause huge loss for the investors. Now all we can do is to take it as a lesn and never make a similar mistake again.¡±

Yang Xinmin, director of the construction department at Wulingyuan, was unwilling to answer CCTV¡¯s question about whether the Bailong Elevator Project had broken the law or wether the local government intended to demolish the elevators. ¡°At least, it¡¯s impossible to demolish it now since it has been just established. When we will demolish it depends on our future economic and environmentalevel of development.¡±

Compromise for future planning

Construction of the Bailong Elevator was listed in the Landscape Plan for Wulingyuan, drawn up in 1990. ¡°Generally speaking, a city¡¯s planning will be modified at inteals of five years. But this plan hasn¡¯t been modified for a long time, due to its complexity,¡± said former chief engineer of Zhangjiajie Construction Bureau Tan Zhengxing.

A group of experts are currently in the process of drawing up a new general plan for Wulingyuan for 2001 to 2020. Li Dihua, of the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture at Beijing University is a member of the group.

According to Li, the elevators are in the wrong place. ¡°The shouldn¡¯t have been built in the core area of a national landscape area,¡± he said.

¡°The project¡¯s environmental protection evaluation was not sufficiently comprehensive,¡± Li continued, pointing out that the reason fohe elevators resuming operation lay in the management system of the landscape area. ¡°The supervision system is not transparent.¡±

He said when the group first started discussing the new plan, the group members were opposed to reopening the elevators. ¡°But we met stiff resistance. The whole planning process could not have moved on if we had continued to insist they not be reopened.¡±

Li also revealed that the local government still did not agree when the group suggested that the elevators be allowed to reopen providing they be demolished at the conclusion of their serviceable life. ¡°As far as the local government is concerned, the elevators should never be demolished!¡±

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