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China sees ecotourism on the rise

updated: 2008-10-21

After more than a decade's development, China's tourism, which has been dotted by negative comments from environmentalists and preservationists, now sees a new possibility: ecotourism.

Norbert Trehoux of Marseilles-based TEC, a consulting agency specializing in the tourism, transport and environmental sectors, is convinced this niche sector could attract well-heeled foreign visitors to less developed parts of China hoping to leverage their natural beauty to generate much-needed income.

Yet he admits the industry faces some pretty tough obstacles.

"In China there is a national policy -- they want to develop ecotourism. But today, the definition of ecotourism is not the one we have in Western countries," he told the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China.

Provinces such as those in the scenic southwest, including Yunnan and Sichuan, are at the forefront of this push.

Still, many supposed ecotourism resorts which have been developed are far from rural idylls, Trehoux said.

"It's more like Disneyland," he added. "You don't go there to be quiet and to relax or to trek. They are more like theme parks. Some have small zoos, and lots of restaurants. This is ecotourism today in China."

Tourism is already big business in China, generating more than 1 trillion yuan ($146.4 billion) in revenues last year, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Though there are no exact figures for the ecotourism segment, a government-sponsored push for rural tourism -- usually involving staying with farmers -- has become popular in China in recent years.

That gives Trehoux hope that in future more and more Chinese will opt for ecotourism, as opposed to the mass tourism in groups generally favored at present.

"The market is changing. There are Western influences everywhere, and China is going greener," he said. "I met some Chinese people in Shanghai, and they don't want to travel like their parents. They are fed up with the flag, and the microphone. They don't want this any more."

Ecotourism in China is also attracting some well-known international boutique chains. Singapore's Banyan Tree runs an award-winning hotel in a remote, Tibetan part of Yunnan which incorporates many aspects of the local culture.

While the government's aim is currently to attract wealthy Westerners to these types of places, Trehoux said that ultimately Chinese will comprise the majority of customers.

"They want to attract Western tourists, but in 20 years time they won't care about Western tourists. They will have high-end Chinese tourists. They will have people who are prepared to spend thousands to spend a night in a remote place," he said.

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