Monks and Snow Lions and Chinese Tourists…Oh My!
Sitting here in an Internet cafe in Lhasa, I’m enjoying a few moments of refuge from the throngs of Chinese tourists outside. With the advent of the Qinghai-Lhasa train line, Chinese tourists have flooded into the Land of Snows to experience the most authentic of eco- and ethno-tourism adventures. The allure of seeing ‘real’ Buddhist monks, of trekking through alpine meadows, and of snapping endless self-photos on Everest Base Camp is just too much for the adventurous Chinese tourist. Donning their matching, fluorescent baseball caps, they have come by the thousands on a sort of environmental and ethnological pilgrimage.
Chinese tourists dress in traditional Tibetan wear outside the Potala Palace.
No one welcomes these so-called ‘Chinese pilgrims’ more than the local tourist agencies. With activities and trips designed especially for the Chinese tourist, these agencies have realized enormous profits over the past several years. These profits, however, are relished at the expense of the local environment and indigenous culture. Yes, while many tour operators boast themselves as eco- and ethno-friendly, most are far from such. It appears to me that such false claims are not mere misinterpretations of ecotourism standards, but instead strategic, marketing strategies. The strategy goes as follows: make Chinese client think that he is an ecotourist while actually allowing him to enjoy all of the amenities and luxuries that normally bring harm to the local ecosystem. Examples of such comforts include large hotels, luxury tour buses, massive restaurants, cigarette-smoking, loudspeakers, disrespectful camera use, littering, cement pathways in scenic areas, etc. Sure, incorporating these features into your tour will surely improve customer satisfaction. It will probably boost your profits too. But what about that silly thing called ecotourism?
The boom of the Tibetan tourism industry depends upon the allure of the local environment and indigenous culture. This allure, in turn, depends upon the commitment of local tour operators to eco- and ethno-tourism. Given as such, will local tour operators be forced to be true to their eco-friendly word? Or will the quest for profit result in the destruction of their only product? Ultimately, can China embrace ecotourism? More to come later…