Ecotourism in Yunnan

Yunnan Province in southern China has been called China’s new Shangri-La. The region contains one of Asia’s last untouched forests, where three of Asia’s mightiest rivers – the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween – pass within 44 miles of one another as they flow from the world’s highest mountains.

Yunnan is a vital center of plant diversity, and is home to a resplendent variety of animals, such as the snow leopard, Yunnan golden monkey, the red panda, and 800 species of resident and migratory birds. Fourteen ethnic minorities, including the Naxi and Yi peoples, live there.

The Chinese government banned logging in the area in 1999 [see “Logging the top of the world,” Fall 1999 EIJ] after realizing massive flooding along the Yangtze River was a by-product of deforestation during the Maoist period.

What seemed like a simple solution triggered a cascade of complex economic and social problems. The timber industry was one of the main sources of income to the ethnic minorities living in the region, who are among the poorest in China. So the ban caused an acute economic crisis in the region.

Officials, aware of the area’s natural beauty and cultural significance, decided to replace the logging income of the ethnic minorities with tourism development in the region. The Chinese government invited the Nature Conservancy to collaborate in the creation of
an integrated conservation and economic-development project in the northwest corner of Yunnan Province.

To direct the multimillion dollar collaboration with the Nature Conservancy, Edward Norton, an environmentalist attorney, and his wife, Ann McBride, who gave up a high-profile job as president of Common Cause, moved to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan.

During the first phase of the Yunnan Great Rivers Project, the Conservancy developed a Global Network to study the region’s biodiversity, culture, and resources. McBride distributed cameras to villagers as part of a program called “photo voice,” which encouraged the local people to shoot pictures of the things they most value in their communities. “We had over 100 photographers in 20 villages, from the ages of 13 to 76. The program was designed to include the villagers’ centuries-old knowledge,” explains McBride. “Yunnan’s ethnic minorities have hardly had any relation with the Chinese people let alone foreigners, so we needed to be pro-active to win their trust.”

The conclusion was reached that the best option for Yunnan was to establish a system of wilderness preserves and protected national parks, develop community-based ecotourism and adjacent enterprises that benefit the local population, and develop human assets in government and local community that will sustain the entire effort.

Now the Conservancy is working to develop community-based ecotourism with local governments, and the Naxi and Yi people of Lashihai and Wenhai villages.

“The idea is to have small lodges and cabins run by the local people for tourists who like to escape the modern trappings of life and enjoy staying in stunning, pristine places,” explains Norton. Yunnan will attract tourists that enjoy nature, climbing, hiking or horseback riding, and perhaps even river rafting. There is a lot to see for tourists interested in culture, such as the old town of Lijiang, with cobblestone streets, crenellated houses and airy courtyards.

Getting local officials to recognize opportunities for low-impact ecotourism ventures has not been an easy matter. Tourism projects in China often follow the contrary path; they aim for the lowest common denominator and pack in as many people as possible.

One such is a small snowmobile track near the summit of the 18,360-foot Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The developer got a government award for his project, which was called a model for tourism development.

A massive nearby peak named Kawagebo raises issues of a less motorized sort. No one has ever scaled the glacier but many wish to; Tibetans oppose climbing because they consider Kawagebo sacred.

As “Shangri-La” advertising draws more and more tourists to the region, balancing environmental and biodiversity protection, cultural preservation, and economic development becomes more difficult.

In 1993, the Bitahai reserve near Zhongdian had 1,000 visitors. By 1998, that number was 10,000, prompting the government to spend 4 million yuan ($480,000) to build a paved road into the reserve, in anticipation of tourists coming to Yunnan for the Kunming International Horticultural Exposition. Zhongdian was flooded with some 120,000 tourists in 1999, bringing about 3 million yuan ($360,000) in ticket revenues. Some of this income has been used to build boardwalks, roads and other infrastructure.

Capitalizing on the tourist trade, local people supplement their income by selling homemade milk products and handicrafts, but most importantly by offering horseback rides. The net income for one horse can reach 8,000 yuan ($1,000) a year. Already, about 10,000 people in Zhongdian County work in the tourism industry.

That industry is already starting to extract a price on the environment and threaten the success of the reserves. Horseback riding near Bitahai Lake, for example, damages fragile wetlands and grasslands. There is also considerable concern that tourism development in the mountainous Haba Xueshan Reserve will badly damage vegetation there, and better planning is needed as more and more tourists visit the region.

One example of poor planning is seen at the Tiger Leaping Gorge tourism site on the Yangtze River. Zhongdian County first blasted a road along the west bank of the spectacular 3,000-meter-deep canyon to bring tourists to the narrow falls near the center. Worried about losing revenue to its neighbor, Lijiang County is gouging a road along the even steeper east bank, destroying the scenic properties of the site and adding additional rubble to the riverbed.

Officials at the US Embassy in Beijing have formally expressed concerns about land management in Yunnan. “It is particularly worrisome that reserve management officials at Zhongdian’s three wildlife reserves have little knowledge of wildlife conservation or tourism management and have no procedures for environmental monitoring or routine wildlife observation,” says a report by embassy staff. “Conservation staff also does little research. Instead, they are all busy with promoting commercial forestry and the tourism business.”

In many other reserves in the project region, the goals of wildlife protection and improving local incomes create direct conflicts of interest. The pursuit of tourist dollars distracts nature reserve managers from their wildlife protection mission.

As more tourists come to the region, the pressure to balance environmental protection and economic development will only increase.