Ecotourism has been part of household vocabularies in China for years. However, one expert believes that the concept still has a long way to go in China, as most domestic tourists are more interested in sightseeing than promoting environmental awareness.
The ecotourism operations currently thriving in the country should still be categorized as “mass tourism” operations, as they typically deal with large numbers of tourists and rarely manage to live up to the conservationist theme of ecotourism, said Wang Ding, secretary-general of the Chinese National Committee for the UNESCO program Man and the Biosphere (MAB).
Wang made the remarks while attending an environmental protection forum held on Sunday in Guiyang, the capital city of southwest China’s Guizhou Province. He prefaced his comments with a definition of “ecotourism,” saying that the concept refers to low-impact, small-scale vacations or trips to areas that are under some form of environmental protection.
Although many local governments have strived to promote ecotourism in recent years, many of them have done so simply to reap economic gains, said Wang, who is also a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He said that these practices have resulted in ecological disruptions, pollution and environmental degradation.
In many cases, the very word “ecotourism” is simply another form of advertising that local governments and travel agencies use to attract more customers, according to Wang.
Another purpose of ecotourism is to educate travelers and offer them insights into the impact of human beings on the environment in order to foster a greater appreciation for nature, Wang said.
“However, many tour guides do not have much knowledge to offer in this area,” Wang said.
“Most tourists just take a few pictures to prove they have been to certain areas. These tourists then go home, losing the chance to learn about the environment and local culture,” he said.
According to Wang, the UNESCO MAB program works to promote ecotourism in “biosphere reserves,” or areas that promote and demonstrate the delicate relationship between man and nature.
Biosphere reserves include a diverse variety of ecosystems and landscapes, including tropical forests and wetlands, said Dr. Hans d’ Orville, assistant director-general for Strategic Planning of UNESCO, said at the Guiyang forum.
The 40-year-old program now includes 580 biosphere reserves in 114 countries. Twenty-nine of the reserves are located in China.
Developing sustainable tourism in the biosphere reserves can provide financial benefits for local people and help to alleviate poverty, Orville said.
The reserves are also “learning laboratories” which can provide logistical support for research and monitoring in environmentally fragile areas, he said.
Wang said that the Chinese committee for MAB UNESCO can learn a lot from countries where ecotourism is relatively mature.
“We will train staff and tour guides in our reserves, which will help us to better protect the reserves’ ecosystems and offer educational opportunities for tourists,” Wang said.
The committee will also compile an ecotourism guidebook for tourists who wish to visit the biosphere reserves, he said.