A plague on paradise in China
Aug 11, 2007By Daniel Allen
YANGSHUO, China - Eyeing the sweaty crowd shifting along West Street, sellers of fake clothing and jewelry tout their wares, as the noise of pumping techno, amusement arcades and tour-guide megaphones reaches a deafening crescendo. Baseball-capped tour groups surge down side streets through a miasma of exhaust fumes and decomposing sewage, searching for hotels and cheap eateries. This is Yangshuo, once described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as a "backpacker's laid-back Mecca".
Beside the Li River south of Guilin in Guangxi province, Yangshuo and its environs have long been renowned for their unique picture-
postcard scenery, with spectacular limestone peaks towering above pristine waterways. Now, however, the town is rapidly falling victim to its own fame, as unchecked tourist hordes threaten to destroy the idyllic landscape they came to enjoy. Overnight stays in the town have multiplied from 30,000 in 1986 to nearly 600,000 last year, and the pressure is mounting.
Just 15 years ago Yangshuo was a small village, generally visited for a few hours by those on tours down the Li River; most Chinese tourists elected to take advantage of Guilin's superior accommodation options. After some favorable reports by adventurous overseas guests and glowing write-ups in the ubiquitous Lonely Planet series, Yangshuo gradually became known on Asia's backpacker circuit, offering cheap hostels and banana pancakes to laowai (foreigners) on a budget.
Thanks to China's burgeoning domestic travel sector, Yangshuo started to attract Chinese vacationers in a big way about five years ago, and the town's mix of tourists rapidly changed from nearly 100% foreign to more than 80% native Chinese. Annual increases in tourism in excess of 20% drove the rapid proliferation of hotels and guesthouses as tour operators raced to provide entertainment options for the growing masses.
Commenting on Yangshuo's whirlwind development, Jasmine Yang, owner of a small guesthouse off West Street for the past 15 years, said, "The changes have been amazing. I used to have a lot of foreigners staying here, but now it's mainly tour groups. I had to take out all the dormitory beds because the Chinese don't like the traditional backpacker style of accommodation. I'm making more money, but it's certainly a lot more work."
Whether cruising on the Li River, bamboo rafting on the Yulong River or watching Jiang Yimou's waterborne sound-and-light spectacular Third Sister Liu, water is central to Yangshuo's tourist experience. Unfortunately, and quite predictably, tourism, agriculture and industry are now taking their toll on both the cleanliness and flow of the town's nearby waterways.
While some efforts have been made to remove sources of contamination, "pollution events" often contaminate the Li and Yulong rivers, and in some areas, once-clear water has become murky and algae-ridden. Restaurants, hotels and newly developed scenic spots draw fresh water from the river, dumping trash and untreated sewage back into it in exchange.
Another serious problem is dropping water levels. As scores of ferryboats slowly ply the Li River, beaching on the stony bed is now an increasing phenomenon. Thanks to the increasingly shallow water, navigable stretches may be shortened to as little as 6 kilometers in the dry season. Many Yangshuo residents are concerned that soon the river will disappear entirely.
Liu Gang, a cormorant-fisherman on the Li River, has watched the slow degradation of the source of his livelihood over the past 15 years. "This river used to be full of big fish," he said. "The current would be strong, even in the dry season. In some places the water is really shallow now, and the fish are a lot smaller. Sometimes I don't catch anything worth selling for a few days."
The effect of tourism on the Li River is also a potential threat to the environment along the Yulong River. There is continuing competition between the two scenic areas; Li River tourism is mainly organized by travel agencies as part of packages out of Guilin, whereas Yulong River tourism is run by operators in Yangshuo.
Recruiting, handling and charging as many tourists as possible is now the philosophy of the day for both sets of operators. Anyone hoping for a tranquil cycle ride through the Yulong River rice paddies is likely to be confronted by a succession of buses, noisily navigating the narrow country lanes to transport tour groups to and from their bamboo rafts.
The growth of tourism has brought mixed blessings to the residents of Yangshuo and the surrounding area, and many locals are satisfied with the extra income that the rising influx of tourist dollars and yuan has brought. Some small villages, such as Xing Ping, have river access, and this has resulted in vastly increased revenues for local inhabitants with entrepreneurial flair.
However, despite the financial incentives, many locals are concerned that new development is harming the esthetics of Yangshuo, renowned for its "scenery in the town, town in the scenery" setting. Much of the new construction jars with traditional architecture, and has blemished some previously stunning mountain backdrops.
American tourist Paul Murray is one of many people disappointed on their return to Yangshuo. "I came here four years ago, and despite the obvious sprawl of the town, there was still a feeling that every street was enclosed by an almost magical landscape. It looks like things have got a bit out of control now - there's construction everywhere and nothing looks to be sacred anymore," he commented.
Although sightseeing has long dominated China's domestic market, recreation is growing as a new tourism product. With a booming economy driving up living standards, more and more Chinese are seeking better quality of life, especially those from urban centers. Growing flexibility in how vacations are taken allows domestic tourists time to visit new areas like Yangshuo, and to spend time pursuing a variety of recreational pursuits.
A rapidly improving transport infrastructure is helping these Chinese tourists reach their holiday destinations. A new expressway from Guilin to Wuzhou will soon complete the high-speed road connection from Yangshuo to the cities of the Pearl River Delta, meaning a much-reduced four-hour trip from Guangzhou to Yangshuo, and only an hour or two more from Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
As a nation and a people, the Chinese are now facing a difficult yet vital question: how to achieve growth without causing further environmental degradation. Protecting China's natural beauty now seems to be more of a priority, even if it's just to satisfy requirements for next year's Summer Olympic Games.
However, by fueling a new market for tourism, Beijing must realize that it is piling up the pressure on a number of delicate ecosystems around the country.
The Yangshuo area is a destination with exceptional topography and immense potential for tourism development. At the same time, the area is fragile, and there is a dire need for more integrated planning and management to ensure that development is sustainable, not detrimental, and that tourist-driven revenue benefits all, rather than just a few.
Guangxi is one of the provinces and autonomous regions eligible for support under China's "Go West" project, designed to support development in western and southwestern China. National funding is focusing on key areas, and Yangshuo qualifies for a percentage of the multimillion-yuan package. For the sake of Chinese tourists, backpackers and locals alike, let's hope a sizable amount of this aid is plowed into sustainable tourism.
Daniel Allen is a freelance writer and photographer from London who has lived in China for the past three years.