Problems Facing the Development of China’s Ecotourism Industry

Problems Facing the Development of China’s Ecotourism Industry
Mar 11, 2014 By Esta Chappell ,

Donning matching bright orange hats, photographing every engraved rock and shuffling along with ten other orange hats, the typical Chinese tourist loyally follows the deafening loudhailer and swaying orange flag of their guide to the next "scenic spot". At the other end of the spectrum, there's a young couple, backpacks strapped on and wearing sturdy footwear, with an environmental bent and a desire to learn about communities that live with nature, who are trekking to an eco-homestead in the middle of "nowhere"—that is, nowhere that humans have manipulated yet.

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park 
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Photo: E. Chappell

Ecotourism or "shengtai lüyou"?

In a sense, these two scenarios sum up the difference in definitions of ecotourism between China and the West. Ecotourism is defined as "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people" (The International Ecotourism Society, 1990). In other words, not only should your holiday or travel plans not degrade the environment; they should also benefit conservation projects and local communities (either financially or through education). A 2008 article in the journal Annals of Tourism Research gives the Chinese translation of ecotourism as shengtai lüyou (生态旅游)—shengtai (生态) meaning ecology and lüyou (旅游) meaning tourism. Both shengtai lüyou and ecotourism refer to the recreational use of nature reserves and both have a similar environmental and commercial view of ecotourism. However, there are several differences between the two that may explain our scenarios above.

The first difference concerns the size and scale of visitations to national parks and reserves. In the West, ecotourism is usually advertised as small scale, small group excursions, whereas in China, million's of tourists visit scenic spots every year and, in fact, often prefer to travel in larger groups. The second difference is the consideration of human health within the shengtai lüyou definition. This refers to things like the health benefits of fresh air or the mental wellbeing associated with being in nature; aspects not strongly marketed in the West. The third difference looks at the integration of nature and culture. In Western society, scenic locations are largely viewed as more aesthetically pleasing when there is no or minimal human impact. Whereas in China, parks and reserves often incorporate human artifacts such as modern structures and rocks decorated with inscriptions. This is evident in places such as Zhangjiajie National Forest Park where large-scale cable cars and cliff-side elevators are as much of an attraction as the 3,000+ natural sandstone pillars.

(Eco)tourism in China

Since 1978, with the opening up of China, tourism activities have been widely encouraged, and particularly in the last decade the numbers of tourists have skyrocketed. 2010 saw 55 million international visitors, mostly from surrounding Asian countries such as Korea and Japan, placing China third in the world for travel destinations (UNWTO World Tourism Rankings). Similarly, the rate of domestic tourism has also risen, with Chinese traveling 1.9 billion times in 2009. Of this 1.9 billion, 333 million were visits to Chinese nature reserves. Not surprising given these numbers, there has been a push to develop ecotourism in China and now around 80% of the nature reserves here have some form of ecotourism operating.

Environmental issues with ecotourism in China

According to the State of the Environment report published by the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in 2009, there were 2,541 nature reserves covering 147 million hectares (14.7% of China). MEP regulations state that nature reserves may be divided into three zones: a core area, buffer area and experimental zone. Within the core and buffer areas, any form of tourism is prohibited. And according to Article 30 of the regulations, if the nature reserve has no divisions, it must be managed as a core or buffer zone. This in itself suggests that the potential of environmental degradation associated with tourist operations is well known.

One site with no zoning or divisions but with ecotourism is the Ordos Relict Gull Reserve (ORGR) in Inner Mongolia, named after the Ordos Relict Gull (Larus relictus), a threatened species. Of the 10,000-20,000 mature adults left globally, 60% traditionally nested in the Ordos reserve every year. However in 2000, the Inner Mongolian Garden Ecotourism Resort was developed in and around the reserve. Tourism activities were focused towards gull watching during the peak nesting season (April-July), but also included speedboat racing, sand skiing, sand motor biking and fishing. By 2003, visitor numbers had reached an astronomical 260,000 in the month of June alone. Tourism activities, in conjunction with climate change affects, had a significant detrimental affect on this gull population. In 1998, there were 3,594 nests and by 2004 no nests remained in the reserve. Fortunately, this population has not gone extinct (unlike other species in protected reserves, e.g. the white dolphin); it instead has migrated 90 km to the northeast, in Hongjian (Hongjiannao) Lake. Ecotourism development here has affected not only the wildlife but also the vegetation, soil and water—the area of bare land significantly increased, and both water and soil quality significantly deteriorated in areas developed for tourism (Zhang, Liu & Li, 2008).

Lack of Environmental Education

Education about both ecological principles and sustainable development are crucial for a successful ecotourism venture. At the very local end of the scale, it is often the residents within parks and reserves who can unintentionally have an adverse effect on the environment that they rely upon. For example, giant panda habitat has been reduced in both quality and quantity due to human activities such as fuelwood collection, agriculture and the use of medicinal plants. A study by Liu et al. (1999) found that the panda habitat within 900 m of housing sites in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, was so degraded that it has become entirely unsuitable for panda habitation. Although it may sound like an extreme measure, the best solution in this case was to relocate residents to areas away from the panda habitat and closer to amenities such as main roads and ecotourist facilities. After relocation, improved access to electricity negated the need for collecting fuelwood and increased their opportunities for employment in the ecotourism industry.

At a larger scale, ecotourism development needs to at least recognise how it will affect the landscape and avoid the double-edged sword issue of ultimately destroying the very feature that tourists are paying to see or experience. At the outset, education on eco-friendly infrastructure, such as waste management systems is needed so that situations like discharging raw sewage from tourist toilets into the middle of a National Park doesn't happen. Not only does this environmental awareness need to begin with infrastructure development, but ideally follow all the way through to the tour guides to ensure ecological principles are also blaring from those loudhailers.

Financial considerations of ecotourism development

In order to develop the infrastructure required to set up an ecotourism venture (e.g. roads, hotels, restaurants etc.), an initial and reasonably large monetary investment is required. As the local communities in these areas are usually very poor, the investment comes from outside or foreign sources. But what does this mean for the local communities, which according to the ecotourism definition, are supposed to benefit?

The previously mentioned Wolong Nature Reserve is a 2,000 sq. km UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is characterised by high mountains and deep valleys containing some 4,000 plant species and more than 2,200 animal species, including the main attraction—the giant pandas. In 2002, ecotourism development was approved and subsequently tourist numbers began to rise. By investigating the distribution of economic benefits among parties involved in the development, they found very little benefit to the local community: the majority of investments in places such as hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops were from the reserve government, reserve staff or other outsiders; more than half of the hotels or restaurants that were owned by local farmers were operated by outsiders; 80% of the jobs in the initial construction period went to outsiders rather than local residents, and most of the products, including food items, in the souvenir shops were imported rather than locally made.

Ecotourist operators (and imposters) in China

Of course, not all local communities are so overrun by outsiders. Some have established true ecotourism and have done so with very little outside involvement. For example XinTuo Ecotourism in Yunnan Province is owned and operated by 24 families of the Naxi ethnic minority group. They offer a range of activities including bird watching, trekking and staying in local Chinese villages where sustainable practices, such as using biofuel from pig excrement, are encouraged. Part of the ecotourism revenue is donated to both conservation projects in the area and to the local communities; a practice also carried out by sustainable travel company WildChina.

However, there are plenty of imposters out there (not only in China), jumping on the "ecotourism" bandwagon. If in doubt, refer back to the original definition and ask questions, such as:

  • What specific contributions are made to conservation or community projects?
  • How many locals are employed?
  • Are souvenirs and food items locally and sustainably sourced?
  • What happens to the hotel waste?
  • Is there a written environmental policy?
  • Why are the fleet of cars Hummers and not hybrids?

To the future

If the typical tourist is not interested in saving the environment (and let's face it, not everyone is an eco-warrior) then the solution lies in ensuring ecotourism development is as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible. Perhaps this can only be achieved through top-down policies and regulation. But even with restrictions on tourism in reserves, local wildlife populations and landscapes can be adversely affected. How many tourists, gone unchecked, can an ecosystem cope with before irreparable ecological collapse occurs? How China balances economics, education and the environment with the current rate of expansion remains a huge challenge. Perhaps the old adage of "Take only photos, leave only footprints, and kill only time" should be inscribed with red paint on those ever-common Chinese rocks.

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Keywords: Chinese tourists; environmental issues; ecotourism in China; ecotourism China’s Ecotourism industry


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Due to the volume of tourists in China, education is the key. Even in parks maintained by teams of gardeners, litter is everywhere. The same for more the few national parks i have visited. Litter is dropped regardless. It is sad to see the ever-dwindling undeveloped parts of the country being destroyed by ignorance.

Mar 11, 2014 08:29 Report Abuse



I agree about the problem, but I don't know if education is enough. Rules need to be enforced. I've seen tourists (presumably Chinese) climbing on statues that had "Please do not climb on the statures" written write next to them, both in English and in Chinese. I doubt the tourists were all illiterate. They just didn't care. Beyond enforcing, and eduction for those who don't see the connection between their actions and environmental degradation (the "Meh, it's just one wrapper" folks), I don't know what approach will work. I wonder if national pride (already a big force) could be used. Many, many Chinese treat their country like a trashcan/spitoon/bathroom/ashtray... If they really are as proud of China as the flags on their backpacks indicate, treating it with some dignity would be a start.

Mar 11, 2014 12:35 Report Abuse