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 Daily (Canada) - - DEPTH -

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.

Over­lap­ping ju­ris­dic­tions

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

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