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 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.
New take on an old favourite
Nestled at the foot of Yangshuo’s famous karst peaks in Guangxi province is a shining example of how responsible tourism should work, and IS working. The Yangshuo Mountain Retreat (YSMR) has a holistic approach to sustainability, taking account of both nature and community in every aspect of its design, construction and operation. To reduce its carbon footprint, the retreat uses solar powered water heaters and fuel briquettes made from agricultural leftovers. The restaurant serves fresh food sourced from local farmers and cosy guest rooms are filled with bamboo furniture handmade in the traditional style.
YSMR also provides opportunities for local residents by employing staff almost exclusively from the neighbouring villages and investing in their development. Staff receive extensive training in hospitality, service standards and language and go on an annual learning holiday to better understand best practices in sustainable tourism. YSMR is 100 percent managed by the local people, who share in the profits and are inspired to continually improve services for guests. Located just an hour outside of Guilin, the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat is the perfect place to get off the beaten tourist path. Ditch the crowded tour boats for a spot of punting on the Yulong River, a hike through emerald rice paddies, or a spot of rock-climbing on the nearby Copper Gate Mountain.
High in the Qomolangma (Mt. Everest) National Nature Preserve, a local Tibetan is using ecotourism to jump-start sustainable community development. The Pendeba Society, one of the first nonprofits registered in the TAR, was established by Tsering Norbu in 2009 to train volunteer community-service workers (or Pendebas in Tibetan) in nature conservation, basic health and hospitality. Tourism provides traditional herder-cultivators with an alternative source of income, reducing the pressure of grazing and farming on the fragile ecosystems of the Tibetan Plateau. Locals also learn the importance of protecting their precious natural resources. The Pendeba Society Training Centre doubles as a guesthouse, where travellers can go to find peace and experience the tranquillity of the pristine wilderness.
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.
Get your hands dirty
Volunteer vacations are a fun and fulfilling way to travel. Projects range from simple litter-picking in country parks to more complex building projects and highly-skilled support such as providing medical aid or technology training. As volunteers pay a fee for their trips, it is important to be careful when choosing projects to ensure that work being done is actually necessary and directly benefits the local communities. Although the concept of volunteer vacations is still relatively new in China, there is growing interest from independent travellers, schools and companies that want to ‘do something good’. Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that builds simple, affordable housing for low-income families organises frequent builds in China and around Asia. The Earthwatch Institute invites people to work alongside scientists in field research that promotes understanding action necessary for a sustainable environment. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) offers opportunities to live and work on organic farms around the world, and in return volunteers receive food, accommodation and the opportunity to learn about sustainable living.
China’s travel industry is growing at a phenomenal rate, particularly in rural areas where it is viewed as quick way to promote economic growth. As travellers go further into China’s wild areas, we must remember to do so responsibly. Next time you take a family holiday, school trip or company retreat why not consider choosing to support responsible travel? Creating enough demand will encourage the industry to grow and China’s beautiful landscapes and unique cultural heritage will remain wild, authentic and incredible to experience for years to come.
Secrets of Shangri-La
There are many ways to experience China’s rich heritage and natural beauty ethically, the Songtsam Circuit is one of the country’s finest.
China has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, especially following the buzz of the 2008 Olympics. The emergence of a newly rich middle class and an easing of restrictions on movement by the Chinese authorities are also fueling this travel boom. In 2020, China should become the largest tourist country and the fourth largest for overseas travel. But very few travelers ever think to explore the off-the-beaten-path destinations in this vast country, tending to stick with iconic destinations like The Great Wall, Beijing and Shanghai. Nevertheless, there are alternative travel options for the discerning traveler.
Imagine waking up in a room facing the dramatic snow-capped peaks of the Holy Kawagebo Mountain, sipping a cup of freshly brewed tea in a courtyard garden on the upper-reaches of Great Mekong River. Imagine meditating with a Tibetan master surrounded by farmland and Buddhist temples or spending a day trekking along an ancient Tibetan pilgrimage route, before returning to an elegant, luxury boutique hotel.
Songtsam Circuit Itinerary
Day 1: Arrive in Shangri-la (3,200m)
Arrive at Diqing Shangri-La airport and transfer to Songtsam Retreat, furnished with Tibetan art, rugs, and furniture, where you will watch the sun set behind 19,000-foot peaks.
Day 2: Shangri-La
Constructed in 1679 and full of precious artifacts, the Songzanlin Monastery is the biggest Buddhist monastery in Yunnan and home to 700 monks. Add colorful prayer flags adorned with Buddhist sutras to the thousands placed by previous pilgrims, and follow devotees on the sacred path around the monastery. Explore local social enterprises, including a yak cheese producer, traditional Tibetan rug makers, and handicraft workshops. That evening, enjoy an authentic Tibetan meal in a family home.
Day 3: Shangri-La to Benzilan (2,000m or 6,600ft)
Take a two- to three-hour drive from Shangri-La to Benzilan, another major trade centre. On the way, stop in towns and learn about the local crafts. After dinner, spend the evening walking around the beautiful village of Benzilan and visiting local families.
Day 4: Benzilan to Deqin (4,000m or 13,100ft)
An optional morning meditation with a Tibetan master awaits you, followed by a visit to the second largest Tibetan Buddhist lamasery in Yunnan, Dhondupling Monastery. Afterwards, drive to Meili Snow Mountain via Baima National Reserve, a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site that is home to red pandas and snow leopards.
Day 5: Mount Meili (The Holy Mountain)
Wake up early to witness Kawagebo, the highest peak in the Meili Mountains, bathed in the golden light of sunrise. Enjoy a day hike and appreciate the beauty of the mysterious Meili Snow Mountain. Later mount horses and ride to Mingyong Glaciers, one of the lowest latitude glaciers in the world.
Day 6: Deqin to Shangri-La
The morning is free for you to enjoy the lodge and its surroundings. You are welcome to take another hike, relax in the spiritual setting surrounded by mountains, or enjoy a Tibetan massage. A farewell hot pot meal (a pot of simmering stock into which ingredients are cooked fondue-style by the diners) caps off a peaceful day.
Day 7: Depart Shangri-La
Relax while your luggage is handled and transportation is arranged to the airport. For guests with time in the morning, explore the hotel amenities.
Samantha Woods is sustainability manager for WildChina, an award-winning travel company that provides distinctive, responsible travel experiences to all corners of China. 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. Samantha.Woods@WildChina.com