Grey to Green Tourism

Treehouses in Hainan, new hiking trails in Sichuan, an upscale resort built from bamboo in Guangdong, the creation of the world’s largest national park in Xinjiang, the emergence of Yanghsuo on the international rock climbing circuit, a plush resort set in converted Tibetan farmhouses in Yunnan – what do all these developments have in common? They herald the arrival of ecotourism in China, now set to receive a boost this year with the official designation of 2009 as the year of eco-tourism. Under the slogan of “be a green traveller and experience eco-civilisation”, the China National Tourism Administration is urging tourism authorities at all levels to focus on greening China’s tourist industry.  


The designation, and a spate of other developments across the breadth of the country, has all the markings of a paradigm shift. For until now ecotourism in China has been taken to mean travel to natural landscapes, without giving much thought to the mode of transportation and accommodation. But now the tourism movers are starting to think about ecotourism in a more holistic manner.  


One of the trends that have captured the attention of industry is the matchmaking between green tourism and upscale tourism, something that has been done well by the Banyan Tree Ringha where double rooms start at $560 in the low season. Situated in a pristine alpine environment in Yunnan, the award-winning hotel has taken green innovation to admirable levels. To construct the hotel, 18 derelict farmhouses were purchased, then taken apart, transported to the site, and assembled again as they were. “In this way,” told June Lee, corporate manager at Banyan Tree’s headquarters, “we did not have to cut down any trees to build the hotel. And the original character of the dwellings has also been retained: the fireplace still serves as the heart or focal feature of the home as in the Tibetan tradition. Other things, such as the thick curtains, hand painted furniture, large wooden bathtubs, and exquisite Thangka paintings are all elements that speak of a culture and its way of life.”  


Banyan Tree’s adventures activities, some of them moderately strenuous, involving full day hikes or horse-riding, as well as lunch with local Tibetan peasants and pottery-making at a Nixi village, have also proven to be equally popular. “Our guests are increasingly looking for authenticity,” said Lee. “The interest is in the unchanged culture and traditions of the local people, as well as hiking through varied and fascinating terrain.”  


And if we have to look for another example, it would be WildChina, a tour operator set up in 2000 to serve upscale green travel, carrying mostly small private groups. WildChina’s evolution is demonstrated by its recent introduction of travel to the Yushu horse-racing festival – an annual Tibetan event that attracts thousands of nomads to compete in horse-racing and other competitions – where guests get to stay in solar-powered tents that pack all the luxury trappings. WildChina’s business has grown from 1,945 clients in 2004 to 3,351 in 2007; the company offers a range of tours, some similar to what many others are already doing and others involving an amount of hiking. “Our guests might not remember specific facts and figures about the city wall in Xi'an,” told me Albert Ng, the CEO, “but they will remember the guide who made them hot chocolate on a cold camping trip at a nature reserve in Sichuan, or a sunset picnic on the Great Wall.” 


You hear a lot about western China when talking about ecotourism as the western parts of the country have the greatest green allures – it’s a region of rugged mountains, vast grasslands, forbidden deserts, and dozens of ethnic minorities. The potential for outdoor adventures is virtually limitless. “I believe very strongly in the steady growth of outdoor sports generally and rock climbing specifically in China,” told me Ryan Gellert, managing director of Black Diamond, the manufacturer of outdoor equipment. “China possesses world-class rock, ice and alpine climbing in places such as Xinjiang and Sichuan and of course Yangshuo.” Gellert organized the first Yangshuo Climbing Festival last year, an event that bolstered Yangshuo’s reputation as a rock climbing playground – in just a few years, the karst mountains of Yangshuo have become one of Asia’s top two climbing destinations (the other being Krabi, Thailand).  


It’s Yunnan, however, that has gone furthest in the area of outdoor tourism, with the economy of northwest Yunnan now being 20 percent reliant on tourism. Yunnan has shown adeptness at doing things visibly, and the recent designation of Pudacao National Park has attracted considerable international media coverage (now the province is planning four more national parks modeled on Pudacao).  


Sichuan is now also surging ahead with ecotourism. Already, the Sichuan Forestry Department has designated 123 nature reserves, a number planned to expand to 150 reserves (or 20 percent of Sichuan’s territory). About 20 of these reserves are now open to limited tourism; the idea is that, with the banning of logging in the late 1990s, ecotourism can provide an alternative income to local inhabitants.  


Most famous of Sichuan’s reserves is Jiuzhaigou, a piece of landscape with alpine slopes, thunderous waterfalls, and azure lakes, now listed as a World Heritage Site as well as a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Two million people visited the reserve in 2007, and an entire small town consisting of more than 90 hotels and other outfits has sprouted up outside the reserve to serve the tourists. The reserve officials are doing an excellent job at mitigating the impact of such a deluge of visitors. A fleet of 300 buses that ferry people inside the reserve run on biofuels; visitors can hop on and off at will and go walking – there are about 60km of elevated board trails. Smoking is strictly prohibited, people can only eat at one designated central place, and toilets are high-tech and mobile.  


But the reserve is also a victim of its own success, and the Chinese way of travelling – the majority of Chinese still travel in bus-bound package tours. “At Jiuzhaigou the park officials have realized that mass tourism has had a negative impact on the quality of landscape and scenery,” told me Yang Ming of WWF in Sichuan. “And now they want to do things differently in Zharu.”  


He’s talking about a new area of the reserve that was opened solely for trekkers last year. This new area, Zharu Valley, has a small Tibetan village that remains quaint and affable, and the idea is that discerning visitors will see the village and then go for a whole-day trek along an old trail that peters out in a series of remote lakes.  


Other reserves are now also eager to prevent mass tourism. Just south of Jiuzhaigou, for example, an eco-tourism project was launched in Wanglang in 2001. A small hotel was built inside the reserve, a base from guests to trek into the wilderness, first along a narrow jeep track and then along elevated board paths branching out in scenic spots. “We have a limit of 150 tourists daily,” told me Jiang Shiwei, vice director of Wanglang. “We also take out all rubbish, wastewater, and sewage.” The setup is professional, but the number of trekkers only amounts to a trickle; most visitors indeed drive in with their car, stop to take pictures at scenic spots, and then move on to other places. “We need better marketing,” said Jiang, “to attract travellers who visit for nature, stay at the hotel and go walking.”  


As in Wanglang, western China generally still attracts few visitors in relation to its potential. There are two main reasons for this: inadequate or ineffective marketing for international tourists, and the perception of inaccessibility caused largely by the language barrier and patchy infrastructure for independent travellers. Travel companies and tourism officials have traditionally developed tourism infrastructure to cater for the Chinese patterns of travel in organized package tours, hence ignoring the needs of individual travellers.  


Most Chinese still travel in groups. This is partly because Chinese employees don’t have flexible annual leave, something that in turn forces holiday-makers to join speedily organized tours on state-enforced holidays. Additionally, most Chinese – like most Asians – don’t like hiking. But now these patterns are starting to change as young, urbane Chinese don’t want to be shepherded in tour groups, and are instead taking to independent travel – the number of young Chinese backpackers is increasing rapidly. Hence tourism officials are now also starting to think of the needs of independent tourists; in Sichuan, for example, there are now plans for new hiking trails and campsites.  


And in new places such as Kanas, infrastructure is being developed to cater for both segments of tourists. Kanas National Park, officially designated last year in the northernmost tip of Xinjiang, is now one of the world’s largest national parks – it’s nine times the size of Hong Kong. It sprawls over the Altay Mountains, which come down from Russia and peter out in Xinjiang, bringing a piece of Siberia into China. The park has been administratively divided into three zones: the ‘core zone’ of 1,700 square kilometres set aside as untouched wilderness, the 7,830-square-kilometre ‘experimental zone’ open for research and special tourism, and the 500-square-kilometre ‘buffer zone’ where general tourism is permitted.  


“By limiting tourism to the buffer zone, we will eliminate the pressure on the core wilderness,” explained Hongjiang Chen, the Kazakh-Chinese tourism director who’s responsible for overseeing the management plan. “Moreover, we want to limit tourists to the buffer zone to 1 million annually to prevent cumulative environmental degradation.   


Originally, when the area opened for tourism in 1998, the focal attraction that emerged was Kanas Lake – a slender 24km-long lake – and a cluster of hotels sprouted up around the southern shore of the lake. Then, four years ago, the government spent US$1 billion to knock down all the hotels and rebuilt them at Jiadengyu, a valley 35km south where the environmental impact can be contained away from the pristine lake. Now visitors can only drive in their private vehicles or tour buses as far as Jiadengyu. Any further they have to board the park’s minibuses, which run on biofuels, and shuttle along the park’s single road, which snakes along the Kanas River to Kanas Lake, and then stretches on to Hai Baba, the smallest of the three Tuwa villages. 


“We are already seeing some positive results thanks to the management we carried out in the past five years,” told me Hongjiang. “Swans have now returned to Kanas Lake and other rare animals have also returned to the buffer zone – these include brown bears, snow leopards, snow owls, red deer, and pheasants. Overall, however, key species are still decreasing due to general habitat degradation.” 


Now a more aggressive management plan is being rolled out. Local Tuwa inhabitants are being weaned away from herding towards working in tourism. Many are employed by the park administration; others are permitted to have guesthouses appended to their houses, and to take people trekking or horse-riding. There are various new hiking trails; an existent 5km board walk along the shore of Kanas Lake has proven popular and now a second 18km board-trail along the banks of Kanas River is planned. Hardier trekkers can also opt for multi-day treks that run along old horse-routes in high, rugged mountains.  


And in Hemu, a quaint village of farmhouses built from unpeeled logs and the seams plugged with moss and mud, a new plan is underway to protect the rustic integrity of the village. “We want the exteriors of all buildings here to look rustically traditional, but then the interiors can be comfortable and modern hotel rooms,” told me Zhang Yongshu, an official who works in Hemu. “The key is to retain the traditional ambience here, and in the future cars would not be allowed to drive into the village.”  


These developments are in tandem with greater environmental awareness, and appreciation of nature, among Chinese people. Ecotourism is now also beginning to capture the imagination of a wide swathe of Chinese travellers, as shown by Crosswaters Ecolodge in Nankun Nature Reserve in Guangdong province. Set in a valley of subtropical forest, this upscale 48-room resort was completed in 2007 to a futuristic design: it’s constructed of bamboo, rammed-earth walls, and roof tiles reused from demolished buildings. The green ethos extends to the service: the restaurant fuses local Hakka fare and modern Cantonese, using vegetables organically grown on site and other ingredients sourced from local Hakka inhabitants, to cook up dishes that are hearty, healthy, and filling. And it’s proven to be a winner: it’s the most expensive hotel in Guangdong, and still it fills solid every weekend with Chinese travellers from Guangzhou seeking weekend retreats.  


In giving an award to Crosswaters, the American Society of Landscape Architects wrote in its report: “Crosswaters is the largest project in the world with regard to the use of bamboo in a commercial project. The spirit of the bamboo is celebrated in the landscape architecture, general architecture, and interior design.” 


According to David Greenberg, who first made his mark in China by building a resort of treehouses in Sanya, bamboo is China’s sustainable material. Greenberg is currently working on a large project in Montougou in Beijing, an area that’s been stripped bare with defunct mines. He calls it Ecoland, and the idea is to rehabilitate the area by turning it into an ecological park consisting of forests of bamboo as well as a theme shows and art installations made of bamboo. “Bamboo is not only sustainable, it’s also a historical and natural material in China, and it can play an important role in ecotourism and poverty reduction,” Greenberg told me. “I think the brightest future for China would be a wise development of the rural areas integrating ecotourism, agriculture and rural development.”  


Now that future is beginning to arrive. “At present ecotourism makes up a small segment of the tourist market, at most five percent,” told me Albert Ng of WildChina. “But now we've started to see a huge increase in the number of individuals, schools, and corporate groups requesting opportunities to get involved with service projects as a part of their trip. The growth in demand for these types of voluntourism projects aligns perfectly with our values of sustainable travel that benefits local communities.” 


© Victor Paul Borg. This article was originally published in Compass, the magazine of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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