Archive for October, 2008

Yes, I’m still alive

Those of you tracking TDT on twitter probably already knew as much, but I thought I’d drop a line for all those who don’t. I wish I could offer a better excuse than “I’ve been busy” to justify my absence, but the truth is that in recent days work has left my mind feeling threadbare and thirsty — hardly fit to produce ideas worthy of this fine blog. To you dedicated readers: thanks for your patience, and stay tuned.

Cheers — TDT.

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World Savers Congress: Educating China on Green Travel

Bamboo forest, Sichuan. Photo by Pat Rioux.

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.

Seoul Journal: Tell Me What It Mela-Means

Beef protest in northern Seoul, June 2008. Photo by Mr. Matt.

Beef protest in northern Seoul, June 2008. Photo by Mr. Matt.

SEOUL — DAWN IS AN OPALESCENT SOUP of haze and refracted sunlight. I pour a bowl of cereal, shuddering slightly as the flakes and bran twigs tap out a quiet cacophony on the porcelain, and reach for the milk. I pause, vaguely wondering about toxic proteins from New Zealand. The thought passes.

I take a jog through my neighborhood and see a woman selling dairy from a yellow pushcart, one of the many found in this city in the early hours. I wonder how her business has been affected. At the office, a co-worker asks if I’d like an instant coffee. I tell him tea would be better for both of us; there’s probably melamine in the creamer. I eat a sandwich for lunch and wonder briefly about what went into the cheese, the bread. At night, my wife brings home some icecream for dessert. We check the label and see “China” listed as an ingredient’s country of origin. We chuck it.

The globalization of the food chain has exploded the range of China’s melamine debacle. But here in such close proximity to the new world power, the likelihood is even greater that people are ingesting, buying, selling or giving contaminated foods to their kids. The industrial chemical that has claimed the lives of at least four infants in China has been found here in fish feed, snacks, dairy and candy. There are growing concerns that it may have been used as a pesticide on imported vegetables. The nation — indeed, the region as a whole — is facing a food safety crisis of unprecedented pervasiveness.

Yet months after South Korea’s citizens cried for the ouster of the Lee Myung-bak government, claiming his decision to open the local market to U.S. beef created a public health risk, there is no visible uproar over the melamine issue. The Korea Food and Drug Administration carries out its tests of products containing imported dairy, announces the results, and then — presumably — consumers change their behavior. No one is up in arms about Mars shirking the news that melamine was found in its products (the levels detected are supposedly too low to pose a health risk), and no one is blocking the ports where Chinese products are arriving, as happened when the first U.S. beef shipments arrived.

The belated reporting of the melamine crisis has revealed a gaping vacuum where morals, corporate responsibility and oversight should have been. China’s citizens are crying out, though due to the country’s media sieve, the outside world likely hears only a muffled echo of the true anguish felt by the tens of thousands of parents whose babies are suffering in hospitals across the country.

Why Korea’s people have chosen to stay silent on an issue that affects them more intimately and poisonously than mad cow disease ever will is a mystery that invites speculation: Perhaps, like smoking, the idea of gradually-accumulated chemicals causing harm is not immediate enough to stir panic. Or it may be simply that there’s just no real way to pin this one on the wildly unpopular President Lee. Either way, Korea would do well to meditate on what it means when the country’s largest trade partner is growing increasingly toxic, and spend an extra moment thinking about what might be floating in the milk.

[Edited on 2008.10.06]

Japan Opens New Tourism Office, Will Ease Screening Procedures

Autumn in Kyoto. Photo by El Fotopakismo.

Autumn in Kyoto. Photo by El Fotopakismo.

SEOUL — AS ASIAN ECONOMIES SWIRL in a hot mess tipped off by the collapse of Wall Street’s monoliths, Japan is looking to travelers in hopes of stimulating local business. Backpackers and camera-toting gawkers may not save the Nikkei, but if the island nation achieves its goal of 20 million visitors annually by 2020, that can’t hurt.

To achieve such ambitious figures, the government announced yesterday the launch of the Japan Tourism Agency, according to the Daily Yomiuri. The agency is to serve as a directive towards breaking down “bureaucratic sectionalism” and attracting visitors by easing screening procedures. The Daily says that latter bit may create friction with the country’s National Police Agency and Justice Ministry.

Japan’s visitors totaled 8.35 million in 2007. The year before, the country ranked seventh in Asia in terms of overseas tourist arrivals.

United States citizens can visit Japan without a visa for a period of 90 days for tourism purposes only, and travelers must have an onward/return ticket. Visitors from the States who have old-fashioned passports should still be admitted under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which South Korea recently joined. Japanese and Korean citizens, however, must have chip-embedded documents.

Important fun-fact? Citizens of VWP-member countries still require a visa if entering the U.S. via land or sea port, according to a Q&A from Korea’s Donga Daily.

Post-Olympics Beijing: Car Bans Continue

Driving at night, Beijing. Photo by Sonya.

Driving at night, Beijing. Photo by Sonya.

SEOUL — AS IT SWEATS OFF the last of the Summer Olympics fever, Beijing is beginning to shift its environmental policy paradigm. In the cold, smoggy light of morning, the city must now face all that it has become, and re-orient itself with the needs of its citizens.

Last January, I expressed hope that residents of the Chinese capital would take a cue from a planned ban of over a million cars during the Games and dust off their bicycles. While a two-wheeled revolution has yet to take place, the municipality has shown surprising initiative in keeping the skies blue (China Daily via China Digital Times):

Under the new traffic restrictions, 30 percent of government vehicles will be sealed off as of October 1 […] The remaining 70 percent of government vehicles, as well as all corporate and private cars, will take turns off the roads one out of the five weekdays as of October 11, it said.

The plan is not completely without its flaws. And while many Beijingers were willing to put up with public transport during the Games, the Daily says their patience has now worn thin.

While most people applaud the ban on government and corporate vehicles, the ban on private cars, however, has sparked an outcry from car owners, many of whom complain it is “unfair”.

“I need to take my daughter home from boarding school on Friday night,” said Beijing bank clerk Zhang Min, whose number plate ends with “0” and will be banned on Friday. “Probably we need to buy another car.”

The restrictions appear to be mostly aimed at easing congestion, with a nod to the effect they will have on air quality. But that’s a start. The city is taking a progressive approach by first cutting municipal traffic, and the kinks will get worked out as people and policies adjust. Auto-owning residents may be loathe to relinquish the wheel for now, but they might change their minds in a couple months when they’re able to drink in a lung-full of oxygen.


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