China has 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a designation that can sometimes be both a blessing and a curse to these cultural and natural areas due to the influx of tourists. So how can we ensure responsible travel in these sites? WildChina Founder Mei Zhang and The Nature Conservancy (TNC)’s Lulu Zhou tackled this issue on air today during Let’s Travel!, a weekly, global radio talk show hosted by New York-based Susan Raphael.
Lulu, who oversees sustainable tourism and environmental education projects in Yunnan’s Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, pointed out a major difference between protected areas in the U.S. and China: whereas in the U.S., no communities reside inside national parks, in China, it’s a different story. In the Three Parallel Rivers area (named after a mountainous region in southwest China where three of Asia’s mightiest rivers, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween, run parallel), almost 300,000 people reside in the site, with 36,000 people within the core zone. Since relocation of these communities isn’t an option, it’s key to engage the communities themselves in conservation work to help preserve the site.
Mei agreed, noting that a change in mindset and an education process are required. At WildChina, we hire and train local guides for our journeys, who benefit directly by providing high-end, sustainable travel services. This training allows us to practice green travel, particularly in hiking trips — for instance, we emphasize responsible outdoor practices, such as Leave No Trace, where travelers “pack it in, pack it out.”
Mei also talked about Yunnan’s Lijiang Old Town, a good example of how the World Heritage designation has led to mass tourism. In neighboring Sichuan province, home to 6 World Heritage sites, including the Giant Panda sanctuaries, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working together with the local government and WildChina to reconcile tourism, development and sustainability. At Wanglang Nature Reserve, for instance, the focus is on ground-level training in eco-tourism practices, including dealing with rubbish disposal. Meanwhile, at the popular World Heritage Site of Jiuzhaigou, known for its colorful foliage and sparkling ponds, discussions of how to successfully manage mass tourism is always a heated topic, given that there are 2.5 million visitors a year. Private vehicles are restricted from entering the park — one key way to ensure more environmentally friendly travel.
Toward the end of the program, both Mei and Lulu offered tips for travelers to China’s World Heritage Sites. To practice responsible travel, they encouraged listeners to clean up their personal trash and take it with them; respect nature by keeping to designated trails; and give back to local communities. Lulu, who is originally from southern China’s Hunan province, recommended a trip her home province’s Zhangjiajie, China’s first national forest park and part of the stunning landscapes of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Mei, who has been to 30 of the 38 World Heritage Sites, recommended not only the sites in her beautiful home province of Yunnan, but also the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang. Located in northwest China’s Gansu province, the caves contain one of the richest collections of ancient Buddhist murals and statues in China and is a must for art lovers.
Note: There will be an encore broadcast of the show on NY Talk Radio.net on Saturday, Oct. 24 at 6:00 pm EST.