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Can eco-tourism save the Nu River?

Parts of southwest China are counting on the promises of tourism to preserve their unique biological riches, writes Ross Perlin. But can this really be achieved before the area is lost to development?

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In many parts of China, the development of eco-tourism is one strategy among many, but in Yunnan’s Nu River valley, it is a race against time. 

In fact, if tourism based on the area’s outstanding natural beauty fails to increase soon, that natural beauty itself may be exploited to raise people’s living standards. With the decision whether or not to build 13 dams along the Nu River suspended at a critical stage, some locals say that a surge in tourism would support the conservationist case.

Waiting for the invasion

One such local is Yan Fei, manager of the only standard hotel in Bingzhongluo—the town located at what is arguably the river valley’s most breathtaking spot. The Yudong Hotel, built with both Western and Chinese tourists in mind, was finished in 2004.

In that same year, a large and elaborate gate was installed south of town, at the entrance to the nature reserve—both to welcome visitors and to extract a 50 yuan fee (around US$7). The “National Park Center” in Bingzhongluo, an office that provides free information on the area, is just being completed, plank by plank, in a deliberately rustic style copied from the province’s most successful tourist centres like Lijiang and Zhongdian.

But the hotel and the “National Park Center” are almost always empty. Yan Fei shakes his head and says that some weeks he’s lucky to have a single tourist appear for a day. Those who do come admire the area’s beauty, but find it challenging to explore by themselves.

Yan Fei is guardedly optimistic about the completion of the last 70 kilometres of paved road between Bingzhongluo and Lhasa (capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region). He hopes that tourists rushing to meet Tibetans, visit lama temples, and photograph snow-capped mountains will realise that all those things are in Bingzhongluo. “People forget there are Tibetans here, too,” says a Tibetan shopkeeper in this town made up mostly of ethnic Tibetans and people of the Nu minority.

“The Grand Canyon of the east”

Most famously, Bingzhongluo boasts the Nu River Gorge, 320 kilometres long and often dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the east”. In addition, the Gaoligong Mountain State Nature Reserve is a major centre of global biodiversity, with over 6,000 plant species and 25% of all China’s animal species, according to local authorities. The reserve includes the northern reaches of the Nu River, the Dulong River to the west, and the nearly inaccessible mountains that lie between them.

The establishment of the nature reserve dates to 1983, but not until 1998 did logging end with a province-wide ban. Only recently has there been an attempt to bring in the familiar elements of a nature reserve: signs, staff, and education of the local population. Nonetheless, the beauty and integrity of the upper Nu River ecosystem are remarkable—mostly a result of the remoteness and underdevelopment of the region.

Crucial to the new attempts to promote eco-tourism is UNESCO’s 2003 designation of the “Three Parallel Rivers area” as a World Heritage Site, encompassing the Nu River and the two river valleys to the east. Each of these rivers becomes of immense importance for human populations downstream—the Salween (as the Nu River is known further downstream) and the Mekong River in southeast Asia, the Yangtze River in southern China. If the dam project goes ahead, UNESCO’s designation may be withdrawn.

Eco-tourism with Chinese characteristics?                    

For westerners, much of what is now being called eco-tourism in China would be unrecognisable as such, or at least unfamiliar. For instance, there is a heavy emphasis on striking natural formations, such as rocks or trees that resemble something else (often an animal) or lend themselves to a mythical interpretation.

Some of the popular attractions marketed along the Nu River include “stone moon mountain”, “the flying stone at Pihe River”, and “the pine in the middle in the river”. The stone moon mountain, for example, is a distant moon-shaped hole in a mountain peak, usually viewed from a roadside vantage point where trinket sellers hawk their wares.

China’s tourism boom has brought both domestic and international tourists in greater and greater numbers to the country’s nature preserves, but more remote and rugged destinations like the Nu River Gorge have lagged behind. The karst peaks of Guilin, the panda habitats of the Wolong Nature Reserve and even the sandstone towers of Wulingyuan National Park are all struggling to cope with the onslaught of tourists.

These mainstream destinations, including the tropical jungles of Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna, are accessed with relative ease, lending themselves to the surgically efficient visits of tour groups. But in the Nu River valley joining a package tour may be the only option, since there are virtually no trails designed or maintained with visitors in mind; the Nu River flows too fast and unpredictably for river cruises.

For the moment, tours in the Nu River valley tend to hedge their bets; natural scenery is balanced with the predictable fare of minority tourism. Tours will not offer detailed tree walks, or provide chances to learn about the local orchids and butterflies, as one might find in an eco-tourism destination in, say, Costa Rica. You’re more likely to see a dance performance by a troupe from the Lisu ethnic minority, or make an organised visit to a Lisu home.

Work to be done

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has called the Gaolingong Nature Reserve “one of the world’s biodiversity treasure houses”. And with its Yunnan Great Rivers Project, the US-based Nature Conservancy has committed itself to eco-tourism as a way to conserve and develop the region, in collaboration with the central government. So with players like UNESCO, CAS, the Nature Conservancy and the central government involved, why has the effort stalled so far?

According to one of the young men working at the new National Park Center, locals will eventually learn to cater to eco-tourism as they have learned to cater to minority tourism. However, this probably won’t happen in time to bolster the case against damming the Nu River.

So far, the officials charged with bringing in tourists are the least likely to know the local environment well, and those who know that environment best are least likely to know how to translate their knowledge for the benefit of tourists.

A road to Tibet, a decision on the dams, a critical mass of adventurous Chinese backpackers—Yan Fei is waiting for all these, just as he waits for hotel guests, sitting day after day on the steps of the Yudong Hotel.

“Do you like it here?” I asked the man at the National Park Centre; I wanted to know if he was the kind of nature enthusiast I have often met working in parks in the US and UK.

“It’s work,” he said tonelessly.

Ross Perlin received his master's degree at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, focusing on the documentation and description of endangered languages.

Homepage photo by tangtang

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匿名 | Anonymous


很感谢Mr. Perlin对中国生态旅游的关注,并提出了宝贵的意见。
但是Mr. Perlin对于中国在生态旅游方面的所做出的努力并不了解,至少误会了中国对生态旅游的认识和界定。
最后,再次感谢Mr. Perlin,也希望越来越多的人们支持和帮助中国生态旅游的发展,让越来越多的人认识到中国在生态旅游所作出的努力。

Emai: [email protected]

A Different Opinion

I really appreciate Mr. Perlin's concern about eco-tourism in China and his opinions. However, I think Mr. Perlin hasn't fully understood the great effort China's made in eco-tourism, at least the definition of eco-tourism in China.

As said in the article, "For westerners, much of what is now being called eco-tourism in China would be unrecognisable as such, or at least unfamiliar. For instance, there is a heavy emphasis on striking natural formations, such as rocks or trees that resemble something else (often an animal) or lend themselves to a mythical interpretation. " In fact, this is not considered as "eco-tourism" in China, but some average behavior in guiding tourists.

Presently, scientists haven't achieved a consensus definition of eco-tourism in the world. It is the same situation in China, which can be concluded in the following three categories in general. From the perspective of development, eco-tourism sticks to the principle of protecting the ecosystem, takes the responsibility of the environment, society and culture and emphasizes sustainable development. In the view of the product of tourism, eco-tourism brings tourists high-standard experience in nature in a eco-friendly way. In the view of the activity of tourism, eco-tourism requires tourists to enjoy their journeys without damaging the original balance of certain ecosystem. In all, eco-tourism has four basic attributes: naturalness, sustainability, responsibility and acquisitiveness.

At last, I'd like to thank Mr. Perlin again for his support to the development of eco-tourism in China. I also hope that more and more people will join him and become aware of China's efforts in eco-tourism.

Shaojie LIU
email: [email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


[email protected]

A Simple Thought

The article points out that:

"For westerners, much of what is now being called eco-tourism in China would be unrecognisable as such, or at least unfamiliar. For instance, there is a heavy emphasis on striking natural formations, such as rocks or trees that resemble something else (often an animal) or lend themselves to a mythical interpretation."

In China this isn't considered eco-tourism, rather is a kind of tour guidance during normal tourism, I agree with Shaojie LIU's viewpoint, however, Mr Perlin raises a kind of universal phenomena. We really like taking tourist attractions - especially natural ones - and apply a mythical interpretation. The most common are beautiful women and romantic love, these are emphasised at the expensive of the natural characteristics of the area. Perhaps, these features are what the eco-tourist needs to come to understand.

[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


生态旅游对于中国来说当然是新的挑战,特别是对于偏远的怒江地区。生态旅游不是没有代价的,尤其是在文化的商业化方面。但全面权衡,这是怒江地区的最好选择,如果这项事业得到良好的组织运作,鼓励当地人拥有并管理旅游业。这样,生态旅游的收入就(大部分)归需要它的人所有,而不是落入设在中国大城市或国外的大型旅游公司的腰包。并且,生态旅游理所当然的要比建造大坝好,筑坝只会给当地人带来危害,而不是任何帮助,更不要说对当地自然环境的威胁。Steve Van HOlde [email protected]

ecotourism the best option

Of course ecotourism does present new challenges to the Chinese people, especially in remote areas like the Nujiang. And it certainly is not without costs, particularly relative to the commoditization of culture. But all things considered, it seems the best option for the Nujiang, particularly if it can be organized so as to encourage LOCAL ownership and control of the tourist industry. That way, the monies from ecotourism will (mostly) flow to the people who need it, not to large tourist companies based in China's big cities or abroad. And of course ecotourism is better than the construction of dams, which will harm rather than help local populations, to say nothing of the natural environment.

Steve Van HOlde
[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



I agree with the above opinion.

Ecotourism is a crucial sector for the development in China’s west and other underdeveloped regions. It also helps those areas avoid repeating the high-polluting and ineffective mode of development along the coast.

However, tourism leads to transportation infrastructure development. As a result, advanced transportation will cause pollution.

The impact of ecotourism on local people’s lifestyle and culture should be taken into account in tourism planning. I agree with Mr. Liu shaojie’s viewpoint: China needs to develop ecotourism. The governments at all levels, entrepreneurs and society as a whole should pool their efforts in this regard.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



A Lisu citizen in the Nu River area

I believe that eco-tourism in the Nu River cannot follow the scale of that in Lijiang and Diqing. Just imagine the terrifying scene - millions of people, even up to three or four million, pouring into the Nu River area every year. How much waste will they produce? Certain tourists travel independently and take along things such as instant-noodles, ham and mineral water. When they have finished, they simply throw them onto the banks, which will pollute the water in the downstream area. (Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我正在做一个关于生态旅游的报告,因此看到了很多国家和地区成功的范例,但是都有一点,在一定程度上破坏了环境。生态旅游说是要保护珍稀动植物和local culture,但是最好的保护其实就是不去依赖经济的手段,无论是自助游还是团体游,都或多或少地影响了当地的动植物,侵蚀了当地民众的思想。但是,我们的目的最终还是要给当地的民众和社区带去财富,真是矛盾重重,对于整个地球的人类来说,开发当然是不好的,但是有谁愿意被全世界忽略,还过着原始人的生活呢?

To develop or protect?

I am currently making an ecotourism brochure, so I’ve looked at a lot of national and local successful model cases. But all of them have destroyed the environment to some degree. Ecotourism claims that we need to protect and cherish the local plants, animals and local culture, but the best protection does not depend on economic methods. No matter if it is individual travel or group travel, all tourism more or less affects the local plants and animals, and erodes the thoughts and customs of local people. However, ultimately our goal is to bring wealth to local people and its community wealth, which is truly a serious contradiction. In terms of the entire humanity, exploiting resources is bad, but who wants to be neglected by the entire world, without progressing from a primitive lifestyle? (Translated by Michelle Deeter)