No walk in the park for harried tourist sites
‘A real national park system’ is what China needs, said President Xi Jinping in 2013. To meet that goal, China is turning to US resources, including the National Park Service, for guidance, reports Hua Shengdun from Washington.
China is trying to get a handle on costs, crowds and environmental impact at its national parks and has turned to the US for guidance. The number of tourists at Chinese cultural and natural heritage sites reached a record 4 billion in 2014 — generating more than $507 billion in revenue — but the government is concerned that the sites are improperly managed.
In a meeting with leaders from the National Tourism Bureau in December 2013, President Xi Jinping said China needs “a real national park system”.
“The reform is really big news,” said Rose Niu, chief conservation officer at the Paulson Institute in Washington, an independent think tank. “First, national park service is still a novel concept to China; secondly, the reform is one of the very few domestic environment issues he (Xi) mentioned.”
China’s National Development and Research Commission (NDRC) hopes to learn from the National Park Service (NPS), a US government agency.
In June, NDRC and the Paulson Institute signed three agreements to improve site management in China.
“There will be scenic spots and historical heritages in nine provinces, including Beijing, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hubei, Hunan, Yunnan and Qinghai, trying different, new management models designed by the Paulson Institute and NDRC,” Niu said.
There will be “four joint projects, two of which will be in the form of seminars between NDRC and Paulson Institute. And the other two will be operated in Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province to redesign the management system there.”
The Paulson Institute will conduct seminars in the US and China between NDRC and NPS to promote the exchange of technology and management approaches, Niu said.
The high cost of tickets, tourist safety hazards and pollution are major concerns for the Chinese government, said Su Yang, a researcher at the State Council’s Development and Research Center who has been studying the management of China’s natural and cultural heritage for more than 10 years.
Rising ticket prices
Over the past five years, many popular sites, such as Changshou Mountain in Hebei province and Zhangjiajie, a world-renowned scenic spot in Hunan province, have been increasing ticket prices by 33 percent during national holidays despite a national regulation that local governments or tourism companies cannot raise prices more than 30 percent during holidays, according to a report from the National Tourism Bureau.
Most of the sites are inundated with tourists during China’s national holidays. Recent incidents also have led to doubts about the local governments’ ability to guarantee visitor safety at the sites.
On Dec 31 in Shanghai, 39 people were killed and 49 injured in a stampede at Chenyi Square in the Bund. There were more than 1 million people there for New Year’s Eve celebrations in an area with a capacity of 300,000.
On Oct 10, Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall begins, was removed from the list of Chinese 5A cultural and natural heritages because it violated pricing regulations.
“Many Chinese sites lack the facilities and experience to evacuate people in a short period of time,” said Carl Wang, an engineer in the Park Facility Management Division at the NPS who specializes in environmental compliance and response. “It is very dangerous for the tourists, because China has such a concentrated flow of tourists during national holidays.”
Many of the sites are run by tourism companies that expand recreational areas or build up facilities — without the permission of the local governments — to maximize profit, Wang said. Those actions can be damaging to the environment, he said.
Funding, institutional structure and the perception of national cultural and natural heritage are issues that need to be addressed by China’s tourism industry, said Rudy D’Alessandro, international cooperation specialist at the NPS Office of International Affairs.
“The National Park Service is publicly funded; Congress gives $2.3 billion to operate the sites,” D’Alessandro said.
The NPS staff membes employed to maintain the sites number in the thousands. They are government workers, just like doctors in public hospitals or teachers in public schools. They get salaries from the federal government, which keeps the revenue generated by the national parks, he said.
In China, the sites have to sustain themselves by their own revenue. For some local governments, that revenue is a major financial source not only to cover the sites’ operational costs but also for local government expenditures such as healthcare and infrastructure, Wang said.
Cutting ticket prices and site capacities will reduce revenue for local governments and tourism companies, and that is a factor in the sites’ exploitation, Wang said.
For example, the revenue in September for Zhang Jialing Park at Baiyin in Ganshu province made up 57 percent of the local government’s income.
Because the local governments, which are more inclined to be profit-driven, make the rules and regulations, they tend to be lax about exploitation by tourism companies and regulations, Wang said.
“When the joint program between NDRC and the Paulson Institute is launched, many popular sites like Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan province, a famous scenic spot in China, are not willing to take part in the reform because the central government will not give any funding or subsidy,” Su said.
Resistant to change
“And many popular parks and historical sites like Zhang Jiajie, which is a Chinese worldrenowned scenic spot in Hunan province, are not willing to be part of the reform because they don’t want to lose the large portion of their annual income generated from the tickets. And they are highly skeptical of the new profit model that the central government promotes.”
Wang said that local governments could be persuaded to accept reforms if the central government funded the programs. Once they don’t have financial concerns, they are more likely to abide by the rules.
Su said that the local governments have to recognize the current model — in which ticket sales are the major source of revenue — is not optimal. Successful examples of sites transformed from a “ticket-oriented profit model” to a “local commercial service-oriented profit model” can convince local governments to take part in reforms, Su said.
NDRC statistics show that ticket sales made up more than 50 percent of revenue for Chinese natural and cultural heritage sites in 2014.
Yet admission and other fees made up only 10.2 percent of visitor spending in 2014, according to the annual report released by NPS.
“When I went to China to visit Shilin in Yunnan province, I saw vendors selling souvenirs which were low-quality and manufactured,” D’Alessandro said. “They could have organized the local people to craft the genuinely artistic souvenirs in which many jobs could be created, and it boosts the local economy.”
He said the focus should be more on “how the sites can boost the local economy, for example, how to attract more tourists to shop in the gift stores and eat at the local restaurants.
“We (at the US parks) strictly control the price of commercial services inside the sites,” he said. “We make sure that all the business in the sites is profitable, but not too much.”
The federal government helps its parks make money even when tourism declines. After 9/11, there were fewer tourists visiting the US. The government decided not to charge restaurants and other businesses so that they wouldn’t lose so much money, D’Alessandro said.
Wang said it is tempting to have a ticket-oriented profit model because the benefit is immediate, whereas reducing ticket prices to boost the local economy is a longterm approach, which is why the popular Chinese sites are skeptical of reform.
“The federal government plays a very dominant role in managing the sites (in the US),” D’Alessandro said. “Everything about the sites is under the management of the NPS, including what facilities we need in the sites, the price of tickets, designing of sites and the revenue.”
NPS is an independent government agency that also manages sites such as the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
The Paulson Institute was founded in 2011 by Henry M. Paulson, the former US Treasury secretary, to promote economic growth and environmental preservation in China and the US.
In China, there are 14 governmental departments involved in managing the sites. How to draw the lines among the central government, provincial governments and local residents will be a vital step in reforming the system, Su said.
Another challenge is land ownership of the scenic spots.
“The National Park Service has up to 7 percent of the land in the national parks, whereas there is only 33.3 hectares out of 6,400 hectare belonging to the local authority,” Su said. “There are also many residential communities in it, which might cause conflicts between the residents and the local authority in terms of how to use the land.”
China’s sites would benefit from a more simplified management system with fewer departments involved, Wang said.
“China has many provincial governments which would like to try the new reform and want to use the title of ‘national park’ to attract more tourists instead of protecting the environment or preserving the diversity of species,” Niu said. “Their primary goal is for economic causes.”
US parks ‘rarely overrun’
“Our sites are rarely overrun by tourists even in the busiest time,” Wang said. “It’s not only because the sites like Yellowstone are very large or we have a smaller population, but Americans’ paid holidays are pretty flexible. The busiest time is spread in three months from June to September.”
Su said China is also trying to reconfigure the timing of national holidays in China in which people can take their holidays whenever they want instead of fixing them in a certain period of time. In “golden weeks” like Labor’s Day or the National Day, most of the sites will be overrun, she said.
“Over these short holidays, the sites will gain the revenue which equals half of the annual income,” Su said. “It is not hard to see that the sites desperately want to raise the price of tickets regardless of running the risks of being downgraded or fined by the central government.”
D’Alessandro said the NPS also closely monitors guest flow at the parks.
“Another way for us to deflect the tourists from popular sites is we promote more unknown sites,” he said. “Through the NPS website and Facebook page, we will recommend some places where most tourists haven’t been yet.
“For example, the Big Bend at the southern tip of Texas, which is a really beautiful scenic spot but few people know of it,” he said. “We recommend it on the websites and put the pictures on the Facebook page.”
D’Alessandro said that the NPS also reaches out to filmmakers to provide good stories about the lesser-known sites.
“People like to go to some places just because they have seen them in a movie, not always because they want to see something beautiful,” he said. “When they go to the sites, they would say ‘See. This is the place in the movie!’ and that’s why we want these filmmakers to shoot movies in the sites or about the sites.”
He said “you may be surprised that we have been working with the Chinese National Tourism Bureau and NDRC for about 20 years. But it is mostly in informal ways. We held some seminars to discuss how to manage the cultural and natural heritages in China.
Since the meeting, the NDRC, which is one of the most important policymaking departments in the Chinese government, has cooperated with the Paulson Institute in improving management of the Chinese cultural and natural heritages, Niu said.
One approach is case studies. NDRC and the Paulson Institute select seven countries to study because they have similar problems when it comes to regulating and managing their historical and cultural heritages. Those countries include the US, Brazil, Germany, South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Thailand.
Some of the countries hadculties similar to China’s.
Another project is to provide some guidelines for the provincial governments. Standard procedures can make the reform more efficient.
Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province will get a review of its management system and space planning.
“We are glad that we are officially working together and making some tangible progress,” D’Alessandro said of the parks cooperation.
Pan Jialiang in Washington contributed to this story.
Jiuzhaigou is a nature reserve and national park in Sichuan province, The valley is part of the Min Mountains near the Tibetan Plateau.
The Stone Forest (or Shilin) of limestone in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province. Rose Niu, chief conservation officer at the Paulson Institute, an independent think tank