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?

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