China's last frontier plans to open to 'eco-tourism'

Source:Global Times Published: 2009-5-26 21:25:51

Photo: CFP

By Xie Ying

It's time for the antelopes of Hoh Xil, an isolated region in the northwestern part of the Tibetan plateau in China, to begin breeding. Their migration signals the busy season for the Qinghai Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve staff, who this year will be watching out for tourists too.

With an area the size of Denmark, the 45,000 square kilometers Hoh Xil nature reserve is the world’s third-least populated area and the least populated area of the most populous nation on earth.

This hostile climate for human beings creates a paradise for wild animals. The official Qinghai Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve website lists one species of reptile, six species of fish, 29 species of mammal and 53 species of bird.

Patrols will now be watching not just for wild animals and armed smugglers but also tourists, management told Xinhua News Agency.

While tourists are forbidden from entering key protected zones of the nature reserve, they are to be granted carefully monitored access to controlled areas, according to this year’s controversial Ecotourism Plan for the Sanjiangyuan Area, Qinghai Province.

The decision to convert a pristine wilderness into a tourism site did not please everyone. Many scholars worried that tourism might have a destructive impact on Hoh Xil’s fragile ecosystem, but Cai Da, the Tibetan ethnic minority Party Secretary of the Reserve’s Administration said that living off government handouts was no way for the area to continue to make a living.

“I know the Administration is short of money,” Yan Xiaohua, a former Hoh Xil volunteer told Oriental Outlook, “but I still worry about the ecological impact.

“There’s little chance of grass returning once it’s been trodden to death.”

Even the actual organizer of the Hoh Xil ecotourism project expressed reservations.

“We will limit the number of tourists to no more than 1,000 each year and less than 15 each time,” Xiao Jinghui, a travel agent working for the Qinghai Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve told the magazine.

This limit failed to dispel the worries of a Fengdu commentary column writer on the CCTV website. Wu Yinghai predicted the tourist limit might rise as profits rose and with them, environmental pollution.


Lake Kanas

“Hoh Xil’s situation reminds me of my trip to Lake Kanas,” Yang Jiahui, a Beijing media and communication company worker, told the Global Times.

The Alpine-style peaks of Altay Mountain, north Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, are reflected in the pure waters of Kanas Lake. Many ethnic minorities reside here including the Tuva people with a unique culture, language and history dating back 2,000 years.

Every day, tourists climb to the Camel Peak to gaze down on the lake and look for its legendary “lake monster”.

Among them, Yang noticed two local twentysomethings who walk around the peak until 7-8pm when the scenic spot closes. Their responsibility is simple: to prevent tourists from treading on the grass.

“Why not lie down and take a rest? Nobody will notice you,” Yang said she had joked with one of them.

The patroller shook his head. The two men work in shifts, one going up and the other going down. It takes them about 40 minutes to finish a journey. They never sleep on their job, she said.

“Grass is sacred and inviolable for nomadic people,” said Yang.

Many tourists ignore the message: They walk on the grass and throw cans, cigarette packs and water bottles everywhere.

“What will our sheep and cows live on if the grass is seriously destroyed?” a nomad told her, Yang said.

At the annual tourism peak, about 700,000 tourists pour into a village of 2,500 villagers and “stamp the grass bald”, the Beijing News reported in March. The erosion kicks up sandstorms, sending litter flying all over the place.

From the outset, an ambitious tourism plan for their homeland was fiercely opposed by the Tuva people. Frequent visits from local officials did nothing to convince them: they always considered the plans an insult to their sacred lake, according to the newspaper.

Diesel oil and dead fish now float in the sacred lake of the Tuva people, a popular playground for power boats.

“There are holiday inns, hotels, guesthouses and karaoke rooms everywhere,” a tourist wrote in his blog.

“The place is regarded as a cash cow.”
If tourism was considered an insult to local people, then uncontrolled tourism seems unlikely to have won them over. Money, however, can always make an impression.

When Yang was at Altay, she once saw students salute their tourist bus. She was told by her Han ethnic majority guide that this was a custom of local children expressing their respect for tourists.

As the increasingly ugly lake prospers under tourism, local government allocates part of the money to help children receive an education.

“The tourists are your benefactors,” the children are told.

While people in cut-off places might enjoy some benefits brought about by tourism, they are “in urgent need of protection”, Yang said.

“Everything there needs to be protected – the environment, the people and the culture,” she said.


Lugu Lake

Viewed through the prism of what has happened to the environment of Lugu Lake in Yunnan Province, Yang’s concern is not entirely irrelevant.

Known for the unique matriarchal society of the Mosuo people, Lugu Lake attracts millions of tourists from around the world every year.

“More and more tourists increase household waste and sewage there, and little ethnic flavor is left,” Li Chun, a visitor to Lugu Lake told the Global Times.

Of the 700 Mosuo, most of the young people reportedly know little of their culture and prefer more commercialized places to the traditional “mother house” where families once used to party.

“Many outsiders stay there to do business and most of the houses with a local flavor have been adapted to meet tourist favor,” said Li.

“I can even see Internet bars there,” said Sheng Wei, a tourist.

The Mosuo’s incomparable custom, the “walking marriage”, is also much misunderstood by some tourists and is allegedly the chief attraction for some visitors, according to China Youth Daily.

Though sad about their destroyed environment and lost culture, local people still welcome tourism, said Li.

“After all, what they are concerned about most is earning money and improving their life,” she said.

Hoh Xil

Money is the root of the problem at Hoh Xil, which means “turquoise ridge” in Mongolian.

“Only 45 persons at the Administration are protecting 45,000 square kilometers of Hoh Xil,” the webmaster of the Administration’s official bulletin board wrote.

“Hoh Xil needs protection, but protection needs money,” the webmaster wrote.

“The key issue is how to create sustainable development.”

Both Yang Jiahui and Li Chun agree.

“I suggest Kanas scenic area switch from patrolling to improving grass maintenance,” Yang said.

“And as for tourists, we need tourism education to enable them to know more about the place they are going,” Li Chun said.

“No valuable natural cultural heritage in the world is protected in a closed manner,” Xu Hao, Vice-President of Qinghai Tourism Bureau told Xinhua News Agency in April.

“The most advanced idea is to develop reserves under proper protection and use the fruits of development to better protect them.”

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