Ecotourism? Don’t try China
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Ecotourism? Don’t try China

The locals want to go overseas, writes Wendy Fung for Asia Sentinel.

If Chinese ecotourism 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.


That green stuff isn't chlorophyll. Pic: Asia Sentinel.

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 week-long 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 sight see 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.