Sustainable Tourism?

Recently I have travelled to Iceland and Croatia—hotspots for environmental spectacles. Most of the parks were pristine, and the resources were well preserved. The scenery was unique and breathtaking. As I begin my dissertation research on ecotourism initiatives on the Tibetan Plateau, I have reflected on my own experiences in ecotravel in Europe and China. Ecotourism is not necessarily a new industry, but in China and the Himalayan region, changes in climate conditions and government policy may create challenges for the industry.

The summer of 2012 for a student language social study trip, I went to Huizhou to climb Yellow Mountain. I waited in anticipation on the bus as we weaved through narrow roads to the small town. I had heard that Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon had been filmed among the hills, and I remember a few instances of watercolor-esque views of the sunrise, and some humbling vistas of valleys below from high peaks. But I mostly remember the dense crowds and absurd amount of litter—used ramen cups, water bottles, popsicle sticks. I began to wonder how “eco” this kind of tourism truly was.

DSCN7086Tourists queuing at Yellow Mountain

The next summer, in Qinghai, I stayed at an ecolodge 4 hours from the nearest city. The environment was pristine, but everyday hoards of buses rolled in spewing out mixed clouds of dust and car fumes. Occasionally on the shore of Qinghai Lake we found and collected garbage strewn by tourists—more ramen cups, water bottles and beer bottles.

IMG_3765Trash collected along a small bit of shore at Qinghai Lake

Understandably, the domestic ecotourism industry in China has grown as more citizens have disposable income to travel–especially residents in polluted east coast cities who can afford to escape for some much-needed fresh air. However, these increasing crowds make me concerned for how sustainable tourism can truly be. Adding up the amount of emissions from flights and giant bus caravans, in addition to litter and large infrastructural projects (hotels, roads, shops) to accommodate these tourists, I’m not sure it can be that sustainable. 

Some of the Tibetan Plateau-based ecotourism practitioners I’ve talked to so far for my dissertation are extremely passionate about preserving the integrity of the ecology and culture in places they hold tours, but they have limited resources and scope. I wonder whether the mass domestic tourism market and the niche ethnic, ecotourism market can be merged, how the latter can grow, or if the two can work together.

As the Chinese Government clamps down on foreign influences and visitation in the region, many of the smaller, locally-owned ecotourism groups that pride themselves on environmental and cultural conservation may find themselves in economic trouble. Furthermore, climate change impacts the fragile Himalayan region more harshly, making trekking and hiking activities more dangerous. The recent film “Sherpa” explores the dangers of climbing Everest due to melting icecaps and the pressures inflicted on the environment by increasing numbers of tourists, who demand luxury hiking experiences. Local residents’ lives and livelihoods are put at risk by these activities as natural disasters steal their lives and damage their primary source of income. It seems unlikely that ecotourism can serve as a climate change mitigation tactic, but I hope that at least these experience can serve as a teaching tool for tourists to spread awareness of various conservation challenges.

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