Can China embrace eco-tourism?

Southwest China’s cultural heritage and natural environment make it an ideal destination for eco-tourists, writes Feng Yongfeng. But irresponsible attitudes to travel may threaten efforts to balance sightseeing with sustainability.

The village of Yushi is in the autonomous township of Lanping, in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. The villagers all belong to the Pumi ethnic group, although many locals simply refer to them as “natives”.

Yushi is proud of its cultural traditions, which emphasise the protection of the local environment, over 90% of which is covered by forest. The residents know that if they were connected to the road network, their forests could be felled and their fragile culture could be threatened under the strain of powerful external influences. For many years they have chosen to remain isolated, hoping to build a strong and healthy community before opening to the outside world.

Government support is vital in building a strong community, but Yushi has seen no official projects or poverty alleviation work. Some of the villagers tried to set up sustainable development programmes, but to no effect. Currently, the best hope is the rural credit cooperative’s micro-credit scheme. However, if the villagers apply for a loan of 2000 yuan (US$253), 400 yuan (US$51) in interest is deducted in advance and they receive only 1600 yuan (US$202). To repay the loan they then need to make twelve monthly payments of 180 yuan (US$23). Villagers regard the loans as of little use in starting their own businesses.

Some in the village advocate a combination of planting profitable medicinal crops and long-term micro-credit loans as the solution to the village’s financial problems, and calculate that raising funds of 400,000 yuan (US$50,602) would allow the village to become economically self-sustaining in five years. But there could be an alternative: eco-tourism.

However, the village does not yet have the facilities that tourists expect, such as clean toilets, washing facilities or internet access. Tourism experts have visited and were impressed by the unique local culture and environment. But if Yushi wants to benefit from eco-tourism, then the village and its households must change to meet the demanding standards of today’s tourists.

Tourism is a kind of technology that adds value to raw materials. Take a regular chicken, cook it in the local style and put it in front of a hungry tourist – and watch its value rocket. Similarly, Yushi’s mountains, which were previously seen as barriers to transport and thus economic development, would become priceless if the villagers could attract the eco-tourists.

Many places in Yunnan are looking for ways to protect the environment and traditional culture while also raising income – and that almost always means eco-tourism is the only option. But if conditions in the villages are not improved, many tourists will simply not come, since most city-dwelling Chinese attitudes to rural living border on outright fear. A lack of cleanliness and orderliness, mosquitoes, dubious toilets and unclear pricing mean that many areas ideal for eco-tourism cannot attract visitors.

Yunnan‘s first officially-recognised organic farm lies on the outskirts of the provincial capital Kunming. It has been making a loss for years, since consumers fail to differentiate its products from those of farms which use chemicals and genetically-modified plants. Similarly, tourists rarely consider the quality of their destinations; they simply look for ease of access and impressive scenery. For many, tourism is simply sightseeing – it’s not about improving your life in any meaningful way.

The vast majority of Chinese people are not interested in watching nature, much less in paying for the privilege of doing so. Some are forced to in the course of government-funded research, but when the funding dries up very few continue. Enjoyment of the untamed environment is not something that comes naturally to Chinese people. We prefer to look at paintings of nature, rather than nature itself; to appreciate a wooden carving of the Buddha rather than the forest the wood grew in; and to let our children be educated about the wild in the classroom, rather than take them to experience it first-hand.

This attitude among tourists is responsible for the unusually slow growth of China’s eco-tourism sector. Faced with consumers unwilling to get too close to nature, the tourist industry ignores areas like Yushi. Since only a tiny minority of Chinese people are willing to appreciate the beauty of Yushi, people often turn to high-spending foreign tourists – but this is also a hope too far. Discerning foreign tourists are also on the decline, while the number of tourists who travel simply to indulge themselves is increasing. Travellers who go abroad to learn and share experiences are being replaced by narrow-minded tourists who are only interested in consumption.  

Tourists are choosing the holiday that involves the least effort, and China’s eco-tourism sector is suffering as a result. Sichuan’s Wanglang Nature Reserve is a haven for giant pandas. Since 1996, Peking University professor and panda expert, Lu Zhi, has been promoting eco-tourism to the area. But the lack of dramatic scenery and the need to spend time outdoors in order to see the pandas mean that Wanglang still lacks the number of visitors it deserves. The same could be the case in Yunnan.

So when we complain about eco-tourism operators failing to attract visitors, perhaps we should take some time to consider the visitors themselves – because if a tourist is unwilling to become an eco-tourist, then any amount of careful planning and good intentions will be wasted.

The author: Yongfeng Feng is an award-winning journalist with Guangming Daily.

Homepage photo by Engtat