Ecotourism? Don't Try China

If Chinese eco-tourism were developed, it might, for instance, involve a retreat to an elegant local courtyard garden, surrounded by the snow-coned Holy Kawagebo Mountain and the torrents of the Mekong River. In an area where the weather is 17C in the daytime with clear skies and the whisper of a soft spring breeze in March, the day theoretically might involve trekking the ancient Tibetan pilgrimage route through the majestic Baima National Reserve and dinner in a traditional Naxi Chinese minority village, where you could interact with the local people.

That sounds appealing but so far, there is almost no such thing. Whether China's scarcity of ecotourism providers is due to a lack of public exposure, higher costs to travel green, inaccessibility to nature reserves without government support or the underdevelopment of nature reserves to accommodate ecotourism with China's immense population, environmental experts and ecotourism providers agree that China is still in the developmental stages of ecotourism.

A western-oriented green travel company would be able to organize and customize this kind of off-the-beaten path eco-friendly experience at a price tag for this weeklong adventure to what has been called Shangri-La: 11,500 yuan. But that is a price that discourages many Chinese travelers, partly because they show little interest in seeing their own country. Despite the buzz about ecotourism for the past decade in China, it is still not popular with Chinese travelers and there are few domestic providers.

The Chinese proverb, zou ma guan hua, or "rushing to sightsee as if you are horseback riding while gazing at flowers," describes the Chinese attitude. Traditionally, domestic tour packages feature flag-waving, megaphone-blaring tour guides that hastily shuttle large groups of tourists from lunch buffets to sightseeing hot spots. Along the way, there are pit stops at souvenir markets, where tour guides receive commission on any goods bought by their charges.

"Why would I spend tens of thousands (of yuan) traveling to a place inside China when I could spend that while traveling abroad?" asks Tracy Zhang, a 32-year-old Chinese bank account executive.

Zhang's view reflects the attitude of many middle-class working Chinese, who have a growing appetite for travel overseas and don't think it worth the same price to travel domestically. Chinese have increasingly traveled abroad for leisure in the past 15 years. According to the China Tourism Academy, mainland tourists made at least 47 million trips to overseas destinations in 2009, a 3 percent increase from the previous year. With the tourism industry a highly competitive business in China and each company bargaining with customers to offer a lower rate to the same destinations, Chinese are inclined to choose the least expensive option when traveling domestically and spend more on touring abroad.

When selecting domestic travel packages, Chinese tourists often don't want tailored itineraries or to take part in planning their trips. Instead, they prefer to pay a lump sum and have every meal, accommodation, transportation, tour guide and sightseeing entrance fee included, preferring to be shepherded by a trusted agency without decision-making or hassle. Their view is that a vacation is most enjoyable when someone else is in charge. For this kind of traveler, the destination may be more important than the journey. The Chinese vacation mentality does not require a unique travel adventure, but to sightsee at all the main tourist attractions and try the major local specialties, says Da Lian Ye, a logistics manager at China International Travel Service Limited (CITS). Many tourist destinations in China have the Chinese proverb, dao ci yi you, etched on stones, walls, park benches and even tree trunks. The idiom means to have visited this place.

Low-carbon footprints take second place to the belief that just visiting a site is more important. In an increasingly competitive industry, the lack of demand for ecotourism means that supply also dwindles accordingly.

"At the moment, our company doesn't offer any ecotourism routes because we simply don't see the kind of domestic interest in that field," says Ruo Yu Jian, a sales manager who has been with Nanhu Travel for five years.

Smaller boutique travel agencies in China that do offer ecotourism trips are virtually nonexistent. But nature-based tourism, or travel to natural landscapes regardless of benefits to the environment or the local economy, has gained popularity among urban populations. For instance, a popular travel route offered by GZL International Travel Service Ltd, one of the biggest travel agencies in Guangzhou, is to the neighboring villages on the outskirts of the city.

"City dwellers like to get out of the smog, breathe some fresh air and enjoy the natural scenery," says Jie Qian Zhang, GZI's deputy manager at GZL. But "At the end of the day, our guests travel to enjoy and not to protect the environment."

Founded in 1954, CITS is the largest state-owned travel agency in the country, with 122 branches across China. Even its mammoth structure and scale, it focuses on its core competency of 10-15-day packaged tours to domestic and international destinations. Two-week all-inclusive land tours from Guangzhou to Hunan or Guangxi (both trips approximately 600 kilometers) start at 10,000 yuan per person, which is still less than half the cost at an average Western green-travel agency.

Ecotourism occupies only a sliver of CITS' business. Like GZL, CITS offers nature-based sightseeing tours to natural landscapes such as overnight stays to rural farmlands or Yellow Mountain in eastern China's Anhui province. CITS also organizes low-carbon bicycling routes in Tibet or longer cycling journeys from Guangzhou to Guilin (approximately 560 kilometers).

In Guilin, a city situated in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, renowned for its unusual rock formations, caves and winding rivers, CITS travelers can camp out and climb mountains to experience more adventurous travel. These all-inclusive bike tours range from 10 to 15 days and can cost 10,000 to 20,000 yuan per person.

According to Da Lian Ye, a CITS logistics manager, most of the clients who participate in the specific ecotourism bike tours are foreigners from North America and Europe who sign up at regional branches abroad. The minority of local Chinese who join CITS's ecotourism routes earn a higher income, speak English and hold a bachelor's degree.

"Ecotourism is not from China, but an international trend imported from abroad. There is still very much a lack of exposure to this concept and we need to educate, especially the younger generations, more about environmental protection and sustainable travel in China," says Tian Zhu Zhang, an environmental science professor at Tsinghua University.

"The Chinese definition of ecotourism is still unclear and often synonymous with nature-based tourism, which doesn't take into account low carbon transportation or benefiting the local people in terms of increasing their income," says Professor Xue Hua Liu, who specializes in environmental systems analysis at Tsinghua University.

Another obstacle to full-fledged ecotourism is the massive urban population -- 712 million in 2009, roughly 53 percent of its 1.3 billion population, an overcrowded urban population that has the income and desire to travel to the country's limited nature reserves.

Although large international organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund are committed to doing conservation projects to open up ecotourism for more Chinese tourists, development of nature reserves has not taken place.

"Land is a scarce resource here and if you're going to bring a huge group of tourists to a nature reserve, it defeats the purpose of minimizing impact on the unspoiled natural resources," says Liu.

It is also difficult for private travel agencies to gain access to nature reserves. Many domestic agencies, whether private or partially state-owned, do not have formal partnerships with the Chinese government. Without approval from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, travel agencies do not have access to many of China's untapped nature reserves, a prime ecotourism destination.

Domestic travel agencies have little contact with environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Most agencies consider partnerships with NGOs financially beneficial only for the NGOs. Benefits to the environment from partnerships between private travel agencies that offer ecotourism and green NGOs are not yet a priority.

"We're a money-making business and profits are not that high right now, so we can't lend support to any NGOs," says CITS's Ye.

While bigger domestic travel agencies seem to be guided and operated by a the bottom line, WildChina, a sustainable travel company started in 2000 by a Chinese native with a Harvard MBA, is operating in an alternative business model. Based in Beijing, WildChina's team of local Chinese tour guides and expatriate employees offer customized, guided eco-sensitive tours. For each trip, the company keeps the environmental impact in mind by controlling client volume to each destination, encouraging travelers to engage in activities that do not require a lot of infrastructure (such as hiking and camping out), and thoroughly cleaning up after each trip to preserve the environment. WildChina is rare in its approach to environmental sustainability.

"While several companies offer travel services to China, WildChina is the only sustainable tour operator based in China that specializes on inbound China travel," says David Fundingsland, a program director at WildChina. Its prices are steep, so WildChina is able to remain profitable through its web of connections with local and international environmental NGOs.

WildChina has chaperoned international students on eco-toilet building projects with Ye Cao, a domestic environmental NGO based in Chengdu, and the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association. It has also partnered with the Changqing Nature Reserve and the WWF in Lao Hegou to develop conservation trip programs. The company's active involvement in China's civil society lends it more credibility as a sustainable tour operator with many of its environmentally conscious clientele.

However, this kind of tailored and privatized green travel in China comes with a price tag that many local Chinese are unwilling to pay or cannot afford. Most of WildChina's clients are foreigners from professional backgrounds at the upper end of the economic spectrum, Fundingsland says.

"The Chinese government has to balance their lofty environmental ambitions against their economic goals at this point in time," says Chace VanderWolk, a commercial analyst for Sindicatum Carbon Capital, an environmental consultancy firm in Beijing.

But Liu, the environmental expert at Tsinghua University, remains optimistic.

"I think the future will definitely be good and the domestic market will grow. But the road to ecotourism will still be long and hard," she says.