During my recent trip to China, I was hosted by the authorities of one of China’s largest scenic parks, which I won’t identify by name as I believe this is representative of all of China. The dinner was over the top, with exquisite dishes, and camera was rolling, documenting our discussion on the scenic park’s pursuit of sustainable development. The leadership of the park has done a remarkable job building roads and hotels inside the park, and made certain parts of the area accessible to more than 2.5 million visitors a year. Somewhere along the way, they mentioned that managing a crowd of 30,000 visitors a day is a piece of cake, as this is something the park is used to on a daily basis. I honestly admire their capabilities in hosting so many visitors a day. In China, the population press is truly the one unique factor that makes sustainable tourism there more challenging than anywhere else on earth.
Over dinner with my hosts, I asked, “You’ve done a remarkable job meeting the needs of the mass market, but are you able to in anyway offer access to the unknown parts of the park to hikers or birders who may prefer a different way to appreciate your park? For example, most people drive by the Grand Canyon, making a stop at the viewing point, and move on. But, with a permit system, it is possible for hikers and white water rafters to explore the deep valley for days.”
He told me politely, “Maybe my understanding is not 100% right, but I believe the economic lever is the most powerful tool to market differentiation. We are upgrading the facilities on the mountain tops, so that the day visitors cannot afford to stay at the top, and only those high-end clients can stay at the mountain top.”
I held back my disagreement as I was one of the guests of honor, and I didn’t want to offend my hosts. I personally believe in a more universal access and feel really sorry that those young students who are more likely to embrace the joy of outdoor camping and hiking most probably won’t be able to afford staying at those mountain top hotels. Yet, there won’t be any other way for these young people to explore the wonders of that world cultural heritage park without the crowd.
I find there is a huge gap between the western standards of sustainable tourism standards and Chinese sustainable tourism practices. The Chinese parks being developed to cater to millions is a necessity because of the large population of China. Often, these parks are very well organized to provide such services on a massive scale. However, how to do so sustainably is a question for which I don’t have an answer.
As the gap between the rich and the poor in China is rapidly widening, I am also interested in making sure Chinese national cultural heritage is shared by all and accessible to all. How to do that is a question for which I want to find an answer.
So, it’s with many unanswered questions and much respect for what my peers have done in China and around the world that I join the TIES board, hoping to learn, to collaborate, and to make a tiny bit of difference.
Learn more about Mei’s role on the TIES Advisory Board.