Pandas spur eco-tourism Chinese style

Posted: 12 September 2005

Author: Claire Doole

Two and a half hours out of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in central China, down a one-lane road - and over lots of potholes - lies the village of Xiang Shujia. Not far from one of China's oldest panda reserves, at Wanglang, Xiang Shujia is among a handful of former logging villages where ethnic Tibetan Baima people are putting down their saws and embracing the panda's bamboo forest habitat to practice ecotourism Chinese style.

Giant panda breeding centre, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China . © WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
Giant panda breeding centre, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China . © WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
Giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) breeding centre, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China © WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
The Baima people - a minority tribal group of some 1,400 people who for centuries have lived in northern Sichuan and southern Gansu provinces - have long depended on the forests as their main source of income. But since a logging ban in the upper basin of the Yangtze River was introduced in the late 1990s to fight yearly flooding, the villages have had to look for alternative livelihoods.

Several are now in the process of developing a small tourism industry as their lands are rich in forests and natural landscapes, and borders on the home of the giant panda. Xiang Shujia, in particular, is becoming a popular bed and breakfast centre for the droves of tourists heading to Wanglang to see China's iconic wildlife species close up. Visitors are also starting to take notice of the Baima themselves.

As our jeep stops in the courtyard of one of the brightly coloured wooden houses, we are greeted by village leader Li Qin and young Baima girls dressed in traditional costumes with white feathers in their hair. As we take our place on low-wooden benches near an open fire, the girls break into traditional song as they serve us spiced ribs with rice and washed down with honeyed alcohol.

Eco-Lodge at Wanglang Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China. © WWF-Canon / Claire Doole
Eco-Lodge at Wanglang Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China. © WWF-Canon / Claire Doole
Eco-Lodge at Wanglang Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China.© WWF-Canon / Claire Doole
Westerners are something of a rarity in these parts as most of the tourists who stay in the homes of the Baima tend to be Chinese, spending their vacations playing maj jong and going on horseback rides through the forest. The foreign tourists are usually found up the road at a well-kept eco-lodge in the panda reserve. But more and more are starting to opt for the rustic village experience.

Logging ban

"We are not earning as much income as we did as loggers, but the number of tourists is growing," said Baima leader Li Qin. "We realize that to attract foreigners we have to show our cultural side, offering more traditional singing and dancing and ensuring our houses are built in the traditional way."

Relations between the Baima and the reserve were tense following the 1998 logging ban as villagers had to make a new living, which included entering the Wanglang reserve to collect wild mushroom and herbs, often at the expense of disturbing the panda's habitat. But things dramatically improved as villagers started receiving training on how to market their communities to tourists.

With start-up loans from WWF, the global conservation organization, women, like Bo Lanzao who became the family's breadwinner after her husband was disabled in an accident, are now making an income selling their handicrafts to tourists on the way to the reserve.

"Our aim is to deter the villagers from disturbing the panda habitat by ensuring they had a sustainable alternative livelihood, including the poorest of families," emphasized Chen Youping, Director of the Wanglang Reserve.

High-value tourism

Visitors on the Giant panda's tracks in Wanglang Nature Reserve, China. © WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
Visitors on the Giant panda's tracks in Wanglang Nature Reserve, China. © WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
Visitors on the Giant panda's tracks in the mountains of the Wanglang Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China © WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
The government-run, WWF-supported Wanglang Panda Reserve - covering an area of 320km2 - lies in the Minshan Mountains in northern Sichuan Province. Up to 20,000 visitors come each year to admire the 32 pandas living here, as well as other endangered species such as black bear, red panda, musk deer, and golden monkey, and to walk in one of China's few remaining virgin forests.

Wanglang is very much about low volume, high-value tourism. A small, 12-roomed lodge - certified by the Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Programme, an international accrediting organization that identifies genuine ecotourism and nature-based tourism operators - is built on the site of a former logging camp.

"All the money from the reserve goes back into community and conservation projects," said Youping. "However the pressure from the local authorities to generate even more revenue by bringing in more tourists is never far away."

"This is a very poor area and there is pressure to replace all the income lost from logging with ecotourism. But our priority is first the animals and then ecotourism."

Youping estimates that 30,000 visitors a year is the maximum the reserve could sustain without damaging the panda habitat. But this is a far cry from the hoards of tourists visiting the nearby world-recognized Jiuzhaigou nature reserve.

Negative impact

Jiuzhaigou, with its marble entranced hotels and exceptional scenic charms, is a mecca for mass tourism. Listed as United Nations World Heritage site, the reserve attracts a million people a year that come to see its fabled lakes, waterfalls, and snow-capped mountains. But overdevelopment, including a newly constructed ring road, has fragmented the region's panda habitat.

According to Wanglang's Chen Youping, mass tourism in Jiuzhaigou no longer makes it an ideal habitat for wild animals and is lobbying for a reduction in the numbers of visitors. WWF is also trying to make tourism a shade greener in the reserve's Zharugou Valley, which is soon to be opened to the public.

"A recent investigation found that mass tourism to Zharugou would not only negatively impact the area, but also a neighbouring golden monkey reserve," said Ling Lin, Director of WWF China's programme office in Chendgu.

"I am hopeful that we can convince local authorities to develop responsible tourism at one of China's most famous sites. If successful, it would serve as a model for other nature reserves to follow," he added. Growing numbers

Tourism, let alone ecotourism, is still a relatively new phenomenon in China. As a result of China's economic boom in recent years, more and more ordinary Chinese have the disposable income to take holidays. For most, a vacation is still a novelty, and if they take one at all, don't plan a visit beyond the Great Wall or Beijing's Forbidden City.

At the same time, foreign tourists are flocking to China in droves. Last year, according to the World Tourism Organization, the number of visitors to China soared 27 per cent to 41.8 million compared with 2003. China has now overtaken Italy as the world's fourth most popular tourism destination. Of course, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City are high on the "places to visit" list, but many are looking to go off the beaten track, keen not only to explore panda country but also to go trekking in Tibet or biking in inner Mongolia.

Companies such as WildChina have seen the potential of tapping into this market. Set up in 2000, it offers tourists the opportunity to experience another side of China. Its marketing director, Adorn Murray, is well aware though of the danger posed by exposing the countryside to hoards of hikers, trekkers, and cyclists.

"We believe that working to protect and preserve nature should be part of any responsible business strategy," Murray said. "It would be tragic if convening with nature leads to its destruction rather than its conservation."

The majority of the tour company's clients are foreign but the Chinese are increasingly putting on their hiking boots and beginning to explore their own country.

"Most of my friends are young professionals and they are just not satisfied with going to see the Great Wall, they want to go and explore other parts of the country," said Mathew Hu, a tour guide with WildChina.

Changing attitudes

During China's Cultural Revolution, the environment was considered a resource and not something that needed to be protected. Today, adventure travel and the environment seem to be a way for young people to seek personal development, something which was never an option in their parents' or grandparents' day.

It was only in 1994 that Chinese environmental organizations were allowed to set up, albeit under the watchful eye of the government. However, while any criticism of government policy is limited, they are having an impact in raising environmental awareness, which in turn is raising interest in ecotourism. Green Earth Volunteers, for example, has 50,000 members who increasingly spend their weekends planting trees and organizing field trips

WWF, the first international conservation organization invited to work in China, has also been active, supporting projects in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces including research, monitoring, patrolling against poaching, and illegal logging as well as social development projects including ecotourism and training for local communities.

"Our projects show that you don't have to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs," said Jim Harkness, outgoing head of WWF China. "From Wanglang to Jiuzhaigou, we are working with local authorities to green popular tourism sites. High-end small-scale green tourism is sustainable and can be as profitable as mass tourism."

Claire Doole is Head of Press at WWF International

NOTE: A recent survey by China's Forestry Administration and WWF revealed there are nearly 1,600 pandas in the wild, over 40 per cent more animals than previously thought. With effective habitat protection within the Yangtze River Basin, WWF believes that giant panda populations can recover in the wild to secure levels.