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    Tourism goes green in Ganzi
Chen Liang
2004-12-07 06:02

While talking about the development of tourism in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, a local official says they feel like they are standing on a gold mine but do not know how to dig.

What worries conservationists most is they have already started mining regardless.

The "gold mine" refers to the beautiful nature and rich traditional cultures of this part of the Khampa Tibetans populated area which covers parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region and Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

Mighty snow-capped mountains, dense virgin forests, broad ranges, pristine alpine lakes, age-old Tibetan monasteries, and villages with lofty watchtowers are just part of the beauty that can be found in the mountainous area.

With the dramatic differences in topography and climate, it is also a centre of the "Mountains of Southwest China," an area designated by Conservation International (CI), a conservation organization based in the United States, as one of the world's top 25 biodiversity hotspots.

However, the remote area is also one of the least developed areas in the country. While commercial logging and agriculture on steep slopes have been banned by the State, the local governments and communities view tourism as a major opportunity to relieve poverty.

So a cable car was built bringing tourists to the foot of the famous Hailuogou Glaciers. A well-paved road stretches into the hinterland of the Yading National Nature Reserve. Tacky cement buildings appear on the banks of beautiful lakes; and Tibetan villages become crowded with construction projects putting up new houses offering visitors a "home-stay." The local government of Ganzi is calling for "devoted efforts to develop ecotourism."

This is why Lu Zhi, director of the CI China Programme and a biologist with Peking University, felt it urgent to organize the Khampa International Ecotourism Conference.

"This region is one of the country's richest ecologically and also the most fragile and threatened," she says.

"But recent unplanned tourism development has caused the degradation of the environment and had a negative impact on local traditional cultures. It can't be considered ecotourism at all."

Ecotourism misconceived

The conference, held in mid-November at the Hailuogou National Glacier Park, invited over 150 participants from a wide range of fields, including local government officials, conservationists from home and abroad and scholars from universities, investors and tourist industry representatives, as well as ethnic Tibetan villagers.

Through participation and communication, the organizers expected to help the region find useful and practical ways of developing ecotourism.

"But at first we expect to change many people's confused ideas about ecotourism," says Lu.

At the three-day conference, Alice Crabtree, Asia-Pacific region co-ordinator for the International Ecotourism Society, told local participants that ecotourism is not just nature-based tourism found everywhere in the country. It is the responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people. And it must focus on natural areas, be ecologically sustainable, and offer an education for tourists.

"So it can win economically and socio-culturally," she said. "It's win-win-win travel."

Zhuge Ren, chief representative of Green Globe 21 in China, introduced the ecotourism standards of the international benchmarking and certification programme and said that an ecotourism product could be certified after reaching these standards and going through the certification process.

However, though there are several scenic areas such as the famous Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area in Sichuan and a few hotels in the country which have become Green Globe 21 members, Zhuge admitted, none of them have reached the ecotourism standards of the certification organization.

"They've just reached our company standards," he said. "They are not good examples of ecotourism."

Unique approach

So are there any good examples of ecotourism in China? Wanglang was the answer of many participants.

Chen Youping, director of the Management Department of the National Wanglang Nature Reserve in Sichuan, attended the conference. In his presentation he introduced a unique ecotourism model.

"We have never paid special attention to real tourists and tourism development. We focus on scientists and scientific research," he said.

In the reserve targeting the preservation of the giant panda, researchers collect local weather data every half an hour and know the precise distribution of fauna and flora in almost every corner of the reserve, he said.

"We have the most professional equipment for observation and the most complete database for conservation," he said. "Various scientific research institutes and researchers from home and abroad queue up to co-operate with us every year. They are financially stronger, environmentally friendly, and much easier to receive than tourists. That's why we're not eager to cater to tourists."

With well-preserved nature and a complete information service, however, ecotourists still come. The annual tourism income of Wanglang amounts to about 300,000 yuan (US$36,150). Sometimes a group of six foreign ecotourists can contribute to the reserve 50,000 yuan (US$6,020) in just one week.

But the successful example of Wanglang is based on scientific research spanning 10 years and can hardly be followed by local governments and communities that are eager to benefit from tourism.

During the conference, some local officials tried to copy the designs of a number of fascinating eco-buildings put forward by experts, so as to build replicas at their scenic areas. But they were told that the replicas would look ugly, for they didn't fit the local environment, just like the buildings of over 20 different styles found at Hailuogou.

Example of poor tourism

While some examples of ecotourism may remain a bit too lofty for local participants, Hailuogou has become an example of poor tourism development for many conservationists and scholars.

According to Wang Wei, a tourism industry representative from Beijing, the Ice Waterfall at the Hailuogou Glaciers had shrunk since his previous visit only a few months ago.

"Global warming has certainly impacted on the glaciers," he said. "But the cable car close to the glaciers, tourists and resorts within the scenic area are factors behind the degradation too."

To make it easier for tourists to explore the forests near the glaciers, cement trails were laid down, which some pointed out was not the environmently-friendly thing to do.

Several hotspring resorts inside the park have tacky buildings and decorations totally alien to their setting. "These are truly ugly to me," Hitesh Mehta, a Canadian landscape architect, said in his presentation.

"They are beautiful," he said, pointing to the photos of traditional wood houses seen at Moxi Town just outside the park. "Unfortunately there are not many left."

Facing the criticism, Xiao Feng, director of the administration of the park, explained that these problems were mainly caused by several independent tourism operators inside the park and their bad management. At present, the administration is purchasing their property back to solve these problems.

However, many conference participants expressed doubts as to the local authorities' humble attitudes towards investors from the outside world.

"They spoil investors for sure," Chen Xujun said. "Most of them become indifferent to the local environment and welfare of the local communities."

A tourism investor from South China's Guangdong Province, Chen is launching an ecotourism project in the Nanling National Forest in the province. He introduced to local officials a practical method of telling whether an investor is responsible or not. "If investors come and talk about ecotourism development, but ask nothing about data for the local environment and the lifestyles of local communities," he said, "they can't be responsible investors."

He also introduced his path to ecotourism development: targeting upmarket customers, emphasizing long-term profit, taking advantage of the good designs of foreign landscape architects, and achieving environmental sustainability by charging enough to keep visitor numbers down.

Karma Tsering from the Kingdom of Bhutan provided a similar example.

Every year, only 7,000 tourists visit his country hidden in the mountains. But the average daily expenditure of each of these tourists is more than US$200. So the country brings in an annual income of over US$10 million from tourism.

"And we have protected over 60 per cent of our land," he said in his presentation. "We believe it's better to have milk and cheese always than to have beef just once."

After the conference, many of the 65 participants from the local government found that they did not discover any shortcuts for ecotourism.

"We have choices for our precious resources," said Yang Suping, head of the Ganzi government. "But we must be very cautious."

(China Daily 12/07/2004 page5)


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