When you think “ecotourism” China is probably not the first place that comes to mind. No, China brings up images of massive crowds of people and heavy smog clouds, not things that are very compatible with environmentally and economically friendly ecotourism. However, with 41 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 28 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, the ecotourism industry has a lot to offer to the nation in terms of both environmental/cultural preservation and poverty reduction.
Ecotourism has been a part of the Chinese vocabulary for years, but most tourists to China are still more interested in sight-seeing than being environmentally responsible. Ecotourism companies in China typically do not live up to their names, and how could they with the massive numbers of people they have to deal with? It’s difficult enough for a tourism company to be sustainable and responsible even when they don’t have to deal with the sheer volume of tourists that the Chinese companies must accommodate, so it’s really no surprise that Chinese ecotourism companies have turned the focus to profits at the expense of environmental protection and pollution reduction.
Further, many of the tourists to China simply want to snap some pictures to prove that they were somewhere exotic and then head home, rather than learn about the local environment and culture. I have a friend who felt the same way for a long time. He insisted that the only reason people travel is to brag to their friends about all the exotic places they’d been, and so for a long time he avoided going anywhere… then he went on a family vacation to Hawai’i, and returned with a completely different mindset. He was taken with the culture, the food, the scenery, the snorkeling excursions, everything that the islands had to offer, and now he’s itching to go back. There’s a lot more to travel than just getting photographic proof you were there so you can show off, and for him it only took one amazing vacation to figure that out.
It might be a while before all tourists to China are as taken with travel–and hopefully responsible travel–as people like my friend, but the biosphere reserves can help. UNESCO initiated the reserve program 40 years ago with the hope of promoting environmental, economic, and social sustainability through a worldwide network of biospheres. The reserves were set up to protect ecosystems as well as a way to teach visitors about responsible tourism and local cultures, and to bring tourist dollars to the local communities. The Chinese Biosphere Reserve Network (CBRN) was established in 1993 as a part of the larger world network, and it has an even more specific goal: linking economic development with conservation in order to encourage environmental and cultural responsibility.
So what does this mean for the Chinese ecotourism industry? It means that those involved in the CBRN are working to develop sustainable tourism in the biospheres as a way to reduce poverty and protect native ecosystems. Developing sustainable tourism will bring money to the local communities, many of which are deeply impoverished rural communities. However, convincing Chinese tourists to participate in responsible tourism is going to be difficult. The sheer volume of people who visit these sites at one time is going to have to be reduced, and the tourists and tour guides must commit to low-impact tourism.
The Chinese Committee for MAB is working towards that goal in a few different ways. For one, they are training tour guides and staff in the biosphere reserves so that they can teach tourists about the area and the local culture, which can enrich the tourism experience and encourage people to travel for more reasons than just to brag. Ideally, however, the guides and staff should be locally hired, since that will bring more economic benefits to the local community, but training the staff so that they can teach the tourists is a good place to start. Also, the Committee is creating a guidebook for tourists who visit the reserves, which will contain information about the principles of ecotourism. This is an important step because ecotourism companies in China often do not follow many responsible or sustainable practices. The guidebook will hopefully raise awareness about what ecotourism really is and why it is significant.
China still has a ways to go before ecotourism becomes truly sustainable and economically beneficial. But the fact that true ecotourism is even a possibility in China brings hope. If it can exist in China, of all places, it can exist anywhere.
Michelle Bovée is a SISGI Group Program and Research Intern focused on international affairs, economic development, and responsible tourism. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit www.sisgigroup.org