Global Observer

Can the world's most polluting country become an ecotourism pioneer?

Can the world's most polluting country become an ecotourism pioneer?

Posting in Environment | From Issue 20 June 16 & 23, 2014

The shoots of sustainable travel are emerging in one of the most unlikely of places: China.

Try to picture an eco-paradise. As the world's biggest polluter, China probably isn't the first destination that springs to mind. And yet in recent years this famously gray, smog-cloaked country has become a laboratory for green travel.

While the number of such operators is small, both businesses and the government have begun making a concerted effort to power lodges with solar panels, invite travelers to pick their own tea leaves and stop farmers from building high-rises on scenic land.

The ecotourism surge is part of a wider travel boom in China. The Chinese now collectively spend more on travel than any other nation. Last year they made nearly 100 million trips abroad and four times as many trips within China. That figure is sure to grow: currently less than 5 percent of Chinese people hold a passport but with incomes steadily rising, more and more are choosing to travel.

"China will be the superpower of tourism and nothing will change that," says Zane Smith, a partner of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. Some worry that China's rise threatens to further strain already environmentally stressed tourist destinations worldwide. But others see a great opportunity to shape a nascent travel industry so that it plays a more positive role.

"The potential for Chinese people to become eco-tourists is phenomenal," argues Smith. He points out that China has some of the world's best resources for ecotourism. It boasts extensive railway networks, providing an alternative to air travel, and hundreds of nature reserves protecting unique flora and fauna, such as its famous pandas. Meanwhile bad pollution in the cities provides a push for people to get out and appreciate the countryside.

For a slideshow of what China has to offer ecotourists, click here.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in travel linked to blue skies, landscapes and creatures," explains Smith. According to him, ecotourism remains "a largely abstract concept that the West is using." It is usually driven more by what Chinese tourists want out of the trip for themselves, than by the idea of the greater good. But, if their desires can be harnessed in the right way, does it matter?

Fortunately a small but dedicated group of Chinese ecotourism pioneers is emerging who are determined to transmute general public interest in nature into truly low-impact travel. Luo Peng, a zoology graduate, is one of them. Growing up in Ya'an, Sichuan Province, near one of China's panda reserves, she understood early the promise and the problems of China's environment.

After working for several years for NGOs, she last year founded EcoAction, a travel agency focused on small tours to China's ecological reserves. Highlights include trips to see the Hainan Gibbon, one of the world's rarest apes, and an expedition into Liziping Nature Reserve in Sichuan, to track pandas in the wild with scientists. "You can't start with a hard sell on low-carbon travel. That won't work in China," Luo says. "First you draw people in with what they're interested in, then you start educating, showing them how they can help the environment."

panda.jpg
China has some of the world's best ecotourism resources, including its famous pandas
 Gabrielle Jaffe

Alongside the founding of environmentally responsible travel agencies catering to both Chinese and foreign travelers such as EcoAction, and others including WildChina and Xin Tuo, there has also been a shift in the Chinese government's attitude. Recent national policy documents such as the 2011-2015 Five-Year Plan, and last year's Outline for National Tourism and Leisure emphasize the need for a greener tourism that benefits local communities.

"Environmental performance has become increasingly important for local leaders as their promotion now depends on it," explains Peggy Liu, the chairperson of the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE). So far more than 100 mayors and central government officials have been sent on JUCCCE's "Eco-heritage Tourism" training programs, which teach leaders how to protect the environment while encouraging tourism to earn money and keep jobs in their villages.

"Recycled materials, geothermal water and solar panels are part of it, but we also immerse them in the soft stuff -- how to create unique experiences by letting tourists eat local food or pick their own tea leaves, for example," explains Liu. "Ecotourism is so new in China that most have never experienced it. How can they recreate it if they've never experienced it?"

One of the biggest problems developing ecotourism in China is that local communities often don't realize there's a demand for it. "There's a large gap between what the rural population believes and what the urban traveler actually wants," claims Hans Galland, CEO of O2rism. "Farmers in China think tourists want high-rises, so they overdevelop and destroy the rural atmosphere that attracted tourists in the first place. They're cannibalizing themselves."

Through his business initiative, O2rism, Galland hopes to change this. Founded on the back of a study backed by Stanford University, O2rism aims to sell local farmers "homestay pods," complete with bathrooms and bedrooms, which can be placed on scenic spots on their lands. Tourists can get a taste of the countryside while still enjoying the four-star accommodation they are used to; tourism profits flow directly to the farmer and there's no need to build resource-wasting large hotels. "It's about empowering local communities to develop their own ecotourism," says Galland.

Like the O2rism project, ecotourism in China as a whole is still largely in the experimental stages. But, if the sweet spot can be found, meeting the "triple bottom line" of profitability, protecting the environment and benefiting local communities, then it has the potential to take off on a scale unprecedented in human history.

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Gabrielle Jaffe

Correspondent (Beijing)

Gabrielle Jaffe has been published in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times, and is currently a contributor at Time Out Beijing. She holds degrees from the University of Oxford and City University London's Department of Journalism. Disclosure