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Ecotourism in Sichuan

Prof. Yin doing what he loves most

Prof. Yin doing what he loves most

Prof. Yin doing what he loves most Jiu Zhai National Park Jiu Zhai National Park

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  • Image © 2008 satcha smith
Dr. Yin Kaipu of the Chengdu Institute of Biology has just returned from another trip to the Hengduan Mountains north of Chengdu and is bubbling with excitement. His dreams of an ecotourism hiking route through the mountains are starting to come true – and he has found some beautiful flowers, as well.

Dr. Yin is personally responsible for the creation of at least 20 different parks and reserves in Sichuan and was one of the first to push for the protection of Jiu Zhai Valley way back in 1968. Jiu Zhai Valley is now a World Heritage site, making Dr. Yin the father of ecotourism in western China.

His latest trip traces the route of Ernest Henry Wilson, whose discoveries in the field of botany during the early 20th century are legion. Wilson’s route through Sichuan has become somewhat of an obsession for Dr. Yin. In the 1960s, a young Yin was sent to the Institute of Biology in Chengdu, where -- for the next 18 years -- he took part in the first modern surveys of Sichuan plant-life by local scientists. It was on these trips that he first encountered Wilson and the dazzling biodiversity of Sichuan that brought the Englishman here in the first place.

“Jiu Zhai valley is just one of countless in that region that I felt needed to be protected,” said Dr. Yin. “But, at the time, the lumber industry was growing and the local government was building an access road.”

In 1978, Dr Yin wrote a letter to Fang Yi, then director of the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing, urging for the creation of parks and reserves to protect the rare and beautiful ecology of Sichuan. Fang Yi in turn gave the letter to then Prime Minister Chen Yun Gui, a peasant from Shaanxi Province, who then demanded the National Forestry Bureau take action. Jiu Zhai Valley became a national park in 1978 and the first tourists trickled in by1983. The letter is now framed and hangs by the entrance to Dr. Yin’s office: testament not only to his pivotal role in environmental conservation in China, but also China’s growing acknowledgement of its own fragile ecology.

China’s tourism industry has grown in tandem with the economic explosion of the last two decades. 200 million Chinese traveled domestically last year and the industry is at 300 billion USD per year and growing. Jiu Zhai Valley sees roughly 3 million visitors per year and the park is struggling to maintain the balance between the pristine ecology and the blistering economy.

In a report prepared for the Sichuan Provincial Tourism Bureau by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in Chengdu, the authors criticized the reliance on mass tourism and trinkets to fuel the industry and called for tailored, high-end ecotourism projects to help sustain the environment and diversify the tourism industry.

Among the attendees was Shun Jiang, a Tibetan from Songpan, just south of Jiu Zhai Valley, who has been offering horse treks to travelers for years. The emphasis on ecological conservation has a large impact on his business – if the lumber industry around Songpan denudes the hills of their trees, his horse trekking business goes down the tubes.

“Ecotourism is about three things,” said Shen Xiao Fang, director of the IFC Chengdu Office. “Sustainability, Profitability and the protection of the environment.”

With the mass tourism model, there are only profits and the Sichuan government is aware of that. According to Dr. Zhuge Ren, director of the China Project of Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism (STCRC), Sichuan is the first province in China to focus on ecotourism and has the most abundant and diverse ecotourism resources of any province in China. Through Green Globe 21, an arm of the STCRC, Dr. Zhuge has established ecotourism methods and principles in the Jiu Zhai Valley, the Bamboo Sea in southeastern Sichuan and the Wanglang Panda reserve in the west.

“With these rare ecotourism resources and encouragement from the government, we chose Sichuan to be the first province to get GG21 Program started,” said Dr. Zhuge. “We believe there is an enormous potential for scenic areas in Sichuan province to be the first pure ecotourism destinations.”

But for Dr Yin, the future is still uncertain. The Chinese tourism industry is different, he explains. The population is impossible to fathom until you see 50,000 people enter Jiu Zhai Valley National Park in one day. For many of the tourism operators in Sichuan, ecotourism is an expensive, foreign concept at worst and just another advert at best. To claim “green” status is pretty common these days, but to actually hold to those agreements is quite another thing. Dr. Yin criticizes ecotourism consultants and operators from abroad who sell their expertise to local operators but lack the ability to follow up on their clients’ willingness to comply with ecotourism rules.

In several of the scenic spots that opened up to tourism in the early and mid-1990s, such as Zhongdian -- one of the now many destinations dubbed “Shangri-La” by optimistic tourism operators -- and Kangding, massive, unplanned tourism development ruined the place for travelers. These places have lost their beauty and culture – their mountains dotted with hideous hotel complexes and their native people – mostly Tibetan -- displaced or engulfed by a massive influx of Han Chinese tourists and businessmen.

Other famous spots in Sichuan, such as the UNESCO World Heritage sites Emei Mountain and Qingcheng Mountain, suffer from chronic crowds. Other problems include avaricious carpetbaggers making big bucks off of tourists and leaving locals in the dust. In Jiu Zhai Valley, the locals a few minutes east or west of the valley live in thatched huts, while tourists spend USD300 per night at the nearby five-star Jiu Zhai Paradise Resort.

“It’s a veritable sea of humanity these days,” said Dr. Yin. “The Chinese tourism industry has reached a turning point – they must start considering ecotourism or we will lose the culture and landscape we hold so dear.”

At the same time, Jiu Zhai Valley and the Bamboo Sea both have “green” buses to limit emissions – a GG21 initiative. National Parks in Muli, Yading and Jiulong both protect the panda migration paths they straddle and give tourists a chance to camp out in lush valleys, beneath waterfalls snowy peaks. The incredible success of panda breeding is due in large part to the breeding centers and string of national parks that help to nurture Sichuan’s most famous native.

Despite these successes, the Dr. Yin finds it hard to ignore the plight of his child. So it is rare that Dr. Yin can be found in his office, he spend most of his time tracing and re-tracing Wilson’s Road and collecting new and fresh samples of Sichuan’s botany. He has plans to turn Wilson’s Way into an ecotourism route, with educational hikes, flower-hunting expeditions and home-stays with local Tibetan and Qiang people. Dr. Yin gets excited as he flips through pictures of the flowers he encountered on this last trip, every second flower is his “favorite.”

“I have been in almost every part of the Hengduan Mountains over the past 40 years and I still find new things,” he said. “We need more rigorous attention to protection and, of course, ecotourism customers. If the people can see that it makes money for them, ecotourism can succeed here.”

Published on 3/5/08

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