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Can China sustainably manage its domestic tourism sector?

By Roy Graff for China Brain.


China has been the world's largest domestic tourism market since 2009, when it registered an astonishing 3.3 billion individual trips. Last year domestic tourists spent ¥2.6 trillion ($417 billion) according to the China Tourism Academy. Whilst foreign countries have been actively encouraging Chinese tourists, who tend to spend a relatively high sum of money during their time abroad, the largest market potential remains within the country. Furthermore, domestic tourism is expected to grow by 10-20% annually in the near future.


A good indication of expected growth in the sector can be seen by corporate expansion plans. French hotel giant Accor announced that about a third of its planned 100 new hotels in China are to be opened close to domestic tourist destinations as opposed to cities. Furthermore, Walt Disney & Co. will open a Disney resort near Shanghai in 2015 or 2016. But what does this burgeoning love of travel mean for the environment and is it being sustainably planned? Besides impacting cultural and natural heritage treasures directly, tourism strains water and waste management, consumes vast amounts of energy, and creates vast amounts of pollution. Will China be able to relieve these pressures and make its tourism industry more sustainable?


If you were a farmer living on the planes of Western China and dark clouds gathered over the mountains, you would know that a flood may be about to hit your land. Water is a resource you need but too much of it would wash away your newly planted seedlings and possibly your property as well. The same risk of ‘too much of a good thing’ can be applied to the domestic tourism sector in China.


The villagers in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, have developed a sophisticated irrigation system to protect their fields from sudden water surges and ensure that all farmers have equal access to water during dry spells. This so impressed modern archaeologists and sociologists that it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Jiuzhaigou, another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sichuan, despite its remoteness, attracts tens of thousands of tourists every day. The area is indeed very beautiful and will see its popularity increasing. However, it also contains a fragile ecosystem, in which wildlife has nearly dissappeared, due to the increasing human activity. Although visitor numbers are restricted by UNESCO, during the peak-season, the amount of tourists often exceeds the limit.


All across China, domestic tourism has been booming (so has outbound tourism) and its pattern is changing from people travelling only in tour groups to more independent self organised travel, to ever more diverse regions of China. When you consider that statistic of 3.3 billion trips each year, what environmental impact can we expect as tourism continues to expand?


It is China's diverse and until recently, isolated scenic areas and natural wonders that are the areas leading the trend for growth. One example is Guizhou, a minority-dominated and underdeveloped province in South West China, where income from tourism rose by 30%, to ¥186 billion ($29.8 billion) in 2012.



Chinese netizens often use a phrase 人山人海 (renshan renhai) “a sea of people” to describe the scene around attractions during national holidays. Beaches and mountains strewn with litter after national holidays are becoming a usual vision and unchecked building development in environmentally sensitive areas continues without EIA (environmental impact assessment) or government long term planning and supervision. Water and energy resources are often not adequately managed to ensure local communities are protected while tourists enjoy hot water, air conditioning and imported food. This isn’t exclusively a Chinese problem but the scale of tourism in China outstrips any other place on earth.




Sustainability is an oft-used and abused term that has to all intents and purposes lost its effect of changing people’s behaviour or encouraging actual government action. Peggy Liu, Chairperson of JUCCCE has said that the language of sustainability no longer serves its purpose and we must reassess how we define what is good for people and the planet, starting with simple human ambitions for quality of life and dignity. Even those that benefit in the short term from over development in tourism spots have children and relatives who may wish to enjoy these resources in future generations. This means understanding and addressing issues such as carrying capacity, resource allocation and people flow. We should ensure that local communities across China share in the rewards of tourism growth through employment, nature and tourism education and training. When people who live locally care about the resources that others pay to see, they will do a much better job of protecting these same resources.


In China, usually it is the local governments that are in charge of the majority of tourist attractions, therefore there is little transparency in management, and the only criterions used to evaluate performance is the number of sold tickets and profit, hence there is little space for environment protection and sustainability. By rewarding management in a transparent fashion and education, it can be ensured that people in charge of national parks are committed to responsibly operating them by encouraging a transparent administration, adding new benchmarks for performance and ensuring that they commit to long-term sustainable management.


Taking a national park as an example, what this means in practice is an accounting system that considers not only direct management costs but also puts value on waste cleanup, effect on surrounding areas, support of local communities through training and employment schemes, increasing the well being of people in the local community and revitalizing the eco-system through re-introduction of native animals and plants. Setting goals for all these things and rewarding management financially for them will offset their reduced income from leasing adjacent land to development and earning additional revenue from concessions and private business operating inside the park.


China has an opportunity to become a model of good, long-term planning and sustainable management of its scenic spots. There are companies already taking the initiative in planning and developing new tourist resorts and attractions, thanks to the leadership of visionaries that understand China is facing an environmental catastrophe if business continues as usual.



However, due to the top-down nature of planning and development in China, a lot of responsibilities lies with the central and local governments, which must pay a lot of attention to the problem, enforce environmental regulations and incentivize private business and park administrations not only encourage economic development, but also bolster a long–term, viable approach that protects both the nature and human heritage for future generations.



Roy Graff is Managing Director of ChinaContact, a boutique market entry specialist for China’s tourism, luxury retail and hospitality sectors.


As a keen supporter of sustainable development and environmental protection he provides pro-bono time to causes he is passionate about. Currently Roy serves as Project Director – Eco and Heritage Tourism at JUCCCE. He has held several volunteer positions including Vice President of communications at PACE (Professional Association for China’s Environment) in China and council member of Tourism Concern in the UK. Roy cooperates with UNESCO, IUCN and other bodies to promote a sustainable and ethical tourism industry in China.




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