Authorities disclosed last week a US$4.7bn plan for an entertainment park in Tibet, focusing on 15 millions visitors per year. A bad idea, says hospitality specialist Roy Graff on his weblog. He already sees the country littered with empty parks, destroying capital and nature.
Regardless of your political views on Tibet, I think everyone agrees that people living there should be able to earn a living wage and receive proper education to have better chances in life. Tourism does have a good potential of leaving more money in the local economy compared to many other industries. Tibet was ‘discovered’ as a tourism destination by foreigners but these days, nearly 10 million Chinese visit there every year and the Chinese government plans for this to increase to 15 million by 2015. Foreigners currently cannot go, and when they are allowed, they need an additional permit beyond the China visa and their visits are monitored.
So the inbound industry in Tibet relies really solely on Chinese tourists. Domestic tourism in China has been booming as the middle class continues to grow. It still relies mainly on large organised tour groups but there is a rising niche of independent, intrepid travellers that go trekking, camping, bird watching etc. and are much more aware of their effects on the local community and environment when they travel.
Places like Tibet, Sichuan or Xinjiang in Western China have a very fragile environment made worse by global warming. It is home to many minority groups that have fascinating cultures that are very different from that of Han Chinese. That is what attracts Chinese to visit there. That is what needs to be preserved and protected if people 5 years, 10 years down the line still want to enjoy and learn from visiting these areas.
There are places where mega-projects and fun theme parks probably work ok – close to cities with a large population that needs leisure time distractions. Where the visiting pressures are so high that facilities must be built to accommodate the demand. I would argue that it is folly to say ‘Chinese people want theme parks so we build them’ when I have seen how many Chinese people change their views after spending time travelling and being exposed to different cultures and are made aware of the fragility of certain areas.
People in position of power and authority need to think of the future. Places of natural beauty belong to humanity and it is our collective responsibility to keep it beautiful for future generations. Local communities who have lived there for hundreds or thousands of years usually know instinctively how to care for nature and need to be consulted and given power to make decisions.
I have seen this work in other places in SE Asia and also in China. By limiting numbers of visitors and focusing on authentic experiences delivered by local guides and communities. revenue is still coming in. Less people who pay more and spend more time in the area.
A theme park that purports to communicate culture will never take the place of getting know people who truly live their culture.
On Thursday we organize the next Google+ Hangout on China. When you are interested, you can pick one of our planned subjects, and register for our broadcast here.