Bamboo forest, Sichuan. Photo by Pat Rioux.
WHEN A HEAVING EARTHQUAKE leveled China’s heartland earlier this year — taking nearly 70,000 lives and leaving 5 million homeless — the reaction exhibited both the best and the worst of human behavior. Grassroots leaders organized to bring relief to those affected by the disaster, and the government functioned with surprising transparency in addressing the region’s needs. But it wasn’t long before the Party grew tired of the bad press about shoddy construction and resumed its old tack, silencing the voices of those who lost the most.
It’s not an inspiring example of either sustainability or responsibility. Yet in the rubble some locals saw an opportunity to bring out the beauty of Sichuan — to reinvigorate it and share it with the world in a way that would embody the meaning of both those terms.
Albert Ng, CEO of adventure travel company Wild China, conveyed to attendees of the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress two weeks ago the reality that environmental and tourism authorities faced after the dust settled: facilities, paths and roads linking the region’s nature reserves had been destroyed. Over a year of daunting reconstruction work lay ahead.
“But what is interesting is that the authorities really understood that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to reshape tourism in this area,” Ng said. Previously the reserves had been geared towards one-size-fits-all tourism, he explained, the kind that chews the landscape and leaves more of an impact on the environs that it does on the traveler.
The challenge, according to Ng, lay as much in training as it does in actual building. His company has been working both with local governments and non-governmental organizations to develop travel infrastructure, and provide the tools and cultural understanding that must form its foundation.
“When we go to these remote places the local governments…believe they should be doing something right, they should be doing something responsible,” Ng said. “And we have been working with them on doing camping, doing hiking trails. They all believe in those ideas..the problem is that they do not know how to do it.”
Ng said his group’s education efforts range from discussions on how to build trails to preparing bedding and meals that will be acceptable to foreign travelers, all while protecting sensitive ecosystems and preserving local culture.
It’s a massive challenge, but one of pressing importance. In 2001, there were 89 million international travelers going to China. In 2007, the figure jumped to 132 million and has only showed signs of going up — not to mention domestic tourism.
As China fumbles through one scandal after the other — whether it be the poor construction of schools, the razing of traditional neighborhoods, tainted milk or polluted lakes — it is clear that the country needs an infusion of new ideas and dedicated individuals. The sprouting of initiatives like Wild China is hopeful, but there are also a thicket of “green” options exploding onto the scene. Mindful travelers must also educate themselves as to which are really interested in reducing the impact of their growing numbers.