One sunny day in October 2009, I found myself on a wooden walkway overlooking the magnificent quartz-sandstone columns of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Hunan province. As I stood trying to take in the view, wave after wave of people pushed past me, eager to have their photos taken and move on. Around every corner, park staff dressed in ethnic minority clothing touted overpriced skewers, rickshaw rides and plastic bric-a-brac, and guides wielding megaphones shouted in a dozen different dialects. Fed up, tired and irritable, I then queued two hours to exit the park.
Unfortunately, most of China’s tourism still caters to the mass market. Zhangjiajie received thousands of visitors over the 2009 Golden Week Holiday alone, while Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium received over 30,000 people per day in 2009. So many people passing through a place puts intense pressure on the local environment. What’s more, visitors are shuttled from site to site by large tour operators, outside investors open restaurants and hotels, and local communities have neither the money nor the skills to compete with them. Locals either move out or become part of the show, performing ‘traditional’ singing and dancing routines or selling tacky souvenirs.
But tourism, if managed properly, can be a powerful engine for social change. The concept of responsible travel has been around for three decades, and is based on the principle that tourism should:
- respect and preserve local culture and heritage;
- protect the environment and conserve natural resources;
- help local communities develop and improve their quality of life.
Happily, this form of tourism is gaining increasing support within China, from both the eco-conscious traveller and those who want to escape the masses and have a more meaningful experience.
RECHARGE YOUR BATTERIES
A common misconception is that sustainability means the sacrifice of creature comforts and convenience. While some eco-lodges do offer a more rustic taste of simple village life, places like The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu in Beijing, naked Retreats in Moganshan just outside of Shanghai and Crosswaters Ecolodge & Spa two hours travel from Hong Kong, are showing that high-end sustainable tourism is possible. Conveniently located right outside major cities, these beautiful retreats attract urbanites looking to escape the business of city life, reconnect with nature and recharge their batteries.
This piece was written by Samantha Woods, Sustainability Manager for WildChina. WildChina’s signature community service trips for schools and our new Sustainable Leadership Academy for businesses take travellers to experience China differently and create meaningful change in underserved rural communities.