Prior to arriving here in China, I didn’t know much about China’s natural wonders beyond pandas. For me, China was an ancient civilisation with numerous cultural treasures, but also one with over a billion people undergoing a rapid modernisation process. Forming part of this has been an increase in the number of Chinese affording to travel and take holidays.
Given this, the question that I was interested in, and part of the reason for me coming to China, was how this history and recent development has impacted on China’s flora and fauna. More importantly, though, is what this means for China’s natural areas going forward and whether there is room for conservation among so many people and their new-found modern lifestyles.
Changqing National Nature Reserve in Shaanxi Province is probably a good example on how conservation, development and tourism are becoming interconnected within 21st century China. Tourists have been visiting Changqing since its establishment in 1995, although they were generally few in number, consisting mainly of forestry or conservation industry professionals. While a lack of knowledge of Changqing as a tourist destination was a likely reason for this, accessibility was a major deterrent given its location high up in the Qinling Mountains. As a Chinese saying highlights, ‘the road to Sichuan is harder than the road to heaven’.
However, China’s recent growth has resulted in a massive infrastructure building program which is removing such obstacles. This is improving mobility for both tourists and villagers alike, opening up some of China’s wild places for tourism and development. In relation to Changqing, a new expressway linking the nearby city of Yangxian to Xi’an opened in 2007, reducing the travel time from over 7 hours to only 3 hours. In addition, the road from Yangxian to Huayang (the nearest village to Changqing) was also upgraded in 2008, enabling the trip to be undertaken in a little over 2 hours.
While fewer than 1,000 people visited Changqing annually up to 2007, these recent developments have assisted in seeing visitor numbers increase to over 3500, and it is predicted to grow substantially over the next 5-10 years. The growth in the tourism market is seeing development take-off in the formerly isolated village of Huayang. The ancient town has undergone a recent facelift with the old streets being repaved and many of the buildings given new wooden fronts.
In addition, many businesses are now deriving part of their income through tourism enterprises such as farm-stay meals and accommodation as well as selling of local produce and goods. As a result, villagers are seeing first-hand the potential economic benefits that can come with tourism through the conservation of the surrounding natural area. Indeed, one recent western visitor to Changqing remarked at how well-dressed the villagers of Huayang were.
However, while tourism brings with it such opportunities, it also creates challenges that need to be recognised. With Changqing established for the protection of the Giant Panda and conservation of its habitat (along with many other endangered animals and plants), it is important that all activities in the area, including tourism, are managed with this objective in mind. As a result, my predecessor, Heather Graham, worked with Changqing and WWF to develop an Ecotourism Action Plan for the reserve. The implementation of this plan is guiding management decisions over the next 5 years in line with ecotourism principles to ensure the maintenance and protection of its precious and unique biodiversity.
With reserves such as Changqing being proactive in preparing for the growth in visitor numbers, I am optimistic about the ability for China to protect its natural areas for future generations to enjoy. However, I would suggest to anyone thinking about coming here to do it soon. Reserves such as Changqing are still relatively unknown and visitors, particularly outside of the summer peak season, are likely to have the whole reserve to themselves, which can only be a good thing for animal spotting. However, China’s rising middle class, combined with its increasing appeal among westerners following events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo, suggests that this is unlikely to be for long.
Wayne is currently working for Shaanxi Changqing National Nature Reserve in Huayang Village, about 5 hours south-west of Xi’an.