The UNESCO-listed Wolong National Nature Reserve, a prime habitat for the endangered panda, was badly damaged by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. To rebuild the reserve into an ecologically sustainable area, Dr Lewis Cheung Ting-on, Associate Professor at the Department of Social Sciences, The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK), and his research team devised two unique accreditation systems for the ecotourism industry, one for tourism businesses and one for ecotour guides, as part of the regulations for the tourism development in the ecologically sensitive reserve. The guidelines included holistic recommendations for ecotourism planning, activities, infrastructure and marketing. In 2016, the local administration in Wolong implemented the recommendations in full. This was the first regional ecotourism certification programme in a protected area in China and it has had a positive influence on the ecotourism development in other protected areas in the mainland and in Taiwan.
The aims of the project, involving researchers from EdUHK, The University of Hong Kong, and The Chinese University of Hong Kong, were to (a) investigate the ecotourism resources of the reserve, (b) formulate ecotourism development guidelines for the reserve, (c) provide training and organise public forums for residents and government officials, and (d) design two ecotourism accreditation systems, one for tourism businesses and one for eco-tour guides.
The project has had a multi-faceted impact on the reserve, replacing the previously unhealthy approach to development with eco-friendly practices, thus (a) improving ecotourism development in the reserve and other parts of China regarding local policy and professional practices, (b) raising awareness of the value of ecotourism and the importance of maintaining a healthy environment; (c) boosting the local economy by identifying new sustainable tourism services and products, and providing increased income for small businesses and jobs for local residents; (d) reducing business costs through reduced energy use and water consumption and less waste; and (e) enhancing ecological conservation in the area and preventing the degradation of the precious panda habitat. Once the new policy was implemented, the number of tourists visiting the reserve surged from less than 1,000 a year before 2014 to over 350,000 annually by 2017.
Ecotourism development requires the understanding, input and support of the local community, so Dr Cheung’s team organised two public forums in the reserve to get residents’ views on the ecotourism development guidelines and to introduce the development plans and certification systems to businesses and guides. They also organised a two-day training workshop on the guidelines and the accreditation systems for residents, business owners and government officials. These efforts resulted in greater awareness of the importance of saving water and electrical power, reducing the use of disposable items, and waste segregation.
A public forum of the same topic was organised at EdUHK, which helped raise the public’s understanding in Hong Kong of the reserve’s reconstruction and how the HKSAR Government’s donation was used. Dr Cheung’s work has also changed public perceptions through extensive media coverage, reaching audiences of millions in the mainland and Hong Kong.
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