Guest Blog : Bob Cartwright Deputy Chair of Nurture Lakeland and former LDNPA Director
I left for Beijing with sheaves of 'Welcome to the Lake District' pamphlets –translated into Mandarin – and returned with a whole new take on China and its attitudes on tourism.
At the invitation of UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme and the Changbai Mountain National Nature Reserve Management Bureau, I was speaking at an international conference in the far north east of China; there to talk about partnership working in UK National Parks, and Nurture Lakeland's leading role in blending responsible tourism with landscape, cultural and wildlife conservation.
Changbaishan (Eternally White Mountain) lies right on the North Korean border, a reserve about the size of the Lake District but rising to almost 9000 ft and culminating in a dormant volcanic crater containing China's deepest alpine lake. An idyllic spot, so little wonder that the lip of the crater attracts 1.6m visitors every year.
As one of the globe's fastest growing economies in a headlong dash for development, it was no surprise to hear that, for most people, holidays are a relatively recent phenomenon. Starting as 'works holidays' many visits to the countryside were and remain primarily social outings for families, friends and colleagues. For most Chinese is the countryside is not yet a place for solitude, adventure or deep learning about birds, plants or wildlife; more somewhere for a great day out of the city in fresh air.
Neither was it a shock to hear that after such burgeoning growth, with its well-documented air and water pollution, health problems and traffic congestion that the wheel has turned; the Chinese now champion what we might call sustainable development and they call Ecological Civilisation. This new mantra appears to come from the very top of the political leadership and is espoused throughout regional and local government. It manifests itself in new town development, in road and railway construction and in visitor management. It's no surprise that cycleways feature strongly: as the song goes, there are 10 million bicycles in Beijing. But extensive and sophisticated park and ride systems, resilient (though poorly landscaped) path networks, good on-site interpretation? They were less expected.
Also causing a raised eyebrow was a well-developed appreciation of the environmental 'services' that well-managed rivers, forests and farmland offer in flood management, clean drinking water, building products, as well as food and traditional Chinese herbal medicines.
Such is the growth in China's middle class, their leisure time and their mobility, that the domestic tourism industry is expanding by 50 per cent a year. And the country is recognising the quality and maintenance of its cultural and natural assets are essential if they're to sustain and develop the market. Experts confidently predict that China will become the planet's most popular destination in a few short years and while facilities are not always aligned to international tastes and preferences yet, the country and the industry are responding with good roads, luxurious hotels, restaurants and even, yes, public toilets!
And here's a point to ponder: China's overseas tourism industry has grown by 22 per cent in each of the last three years. It is now valued at $55 billion. I rather wish I'd taken a few more of those pamphlets...