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CLEARINGHOUSE FOR REVIEWING ECOTOURISM, No. 11

In many parts of the world, the commercialization and privatization of national parks and other public domains is rapidly moving ahead, which opens the door for unprecedented land grabs and plundering of natural resources by corporations. The document we are sharing in today’s Clearinghouse shows that China is no exception. The prime actors in this arena are tourism companies and theme park builders with the active support of national and local government agencies that have embraced tourism as an attractive source of income.

Proponents of privatization - or privatization of management control - argue that the private sector has the financial resources and the expertise to properly develop and manage areas earmarked for tourism and are, thus, better equipped than cash-strapped governments to create clean, safe and comfortable environments for the enhancement of visitor satisfaction.

But once businesses gain control, they tend to claim ownership over what rightfully belongs to the people. Their customary goal of making quick profits is almost certainly detrimental to the goals of conservation and environmental protection. To attract more tourists, they build hotels, restaurants, shops, roads, parking lots and other infrastructure in ecologically and culturally sensitive areas, which often results in irreparable damage. 

By allowing outside investors to develop and manage public lands in a similar way like Disney’s theme parks, local people are losing out. Expropriated from the lands and natural resources they depend on for livelihood, they are likely to get exploited as cheap labour by the profit-hungry tourist industry. There is the tendency to introduce higher user fees and to promote consumption in privately managed areas so that local people can no longer freely enjoy and celebrate their natural and cultural heritage. The sites lose their uniqueness, and the recreational and spiritual opportunities they offer are at threat, as business transforms them into free market places, where nothing is sacred and all assets are for sale.

The campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network

Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia

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Privatizing China's Parks

As Firms Take Over Scenic Treasures, Government Officials Occupy Executive Suites

By John Pomfret

HUANGSHAN, China -- When President Jiang Zemin journeyed to Huangshan Mountain in April, he was so taken with its craggy peaks and windblown pines that he penned a poem. The mountain, Jiang wrote in "Feelings on Climbing Huangshan," encapsulates China's beauty and is a metaphor -- "the sky for miles around is red" -- for the Communist Party's sway.

But Huangshan also reflects something else: the opportunities and pitfalls of privatization and what some economists and environmentalists here call a land grab of China's natural patrimony. How China manages some of its most beautiful landscapes illustrates the unsettled terrain created by this giant nation's transition from doctrinaire socialism toward a largely undefined mix of socialism and capitalism.

The Huangshan Tourism Development Co. was formed in 1996 to manage the 72 peaks that make up the 60-square-mile Huangshan national scenic area in Anhui province, 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. That year it was listed on the Shanghai stock exchange. Today, 51.5 percent of the firm is owned by Chinese and foreign shareholders such as The China Fund on the New York Stock Exchange, and Naito Securities, the Japanese investment house. The remainder is owned by the city of Huangshan.

In a pattern being repeated around China, the executives who run the firm are also top officials in a government that oversees the scenic area, creating an apparent conflict of interest. Huangshan is not alone. Throughout China, some of the most important scenic and cultural areas are being developed by companies rather than the state, and many of those companies are listed on China's two stock exchanges.

Executives from these firms also sit on the government committees that manage the sites. And the firms profit not simply from running hotels, restaurants and gift shops on the sites; their biggest take comes from selling entrance tickets.

"What has gone on in some of these places was never even contemplated in the United States in terms of allowing concessionaires to control scenic areas," said Ed Norton, a prominent American environmentalist working to establish a national park among a series of stunning river valleys in Yunnan province.

In addition to China's national monuments, even little parks and temples are going private. Zhi Hua Si, a famed Buddhist temple and the oldest collection of buildings in Beijing, has allowed an advertising company to occupy one of its ancient halls for a fee. Ritan Park, formerly one of Beijing's nicest parks, has 30 percent less green space than it did five years ago; private developers have constructed a string of office buildings in the middle of the park.

Opportunities for privatization of national parks were created when China's rapid economic reforms met up with the state's empty coffers. The central government in Beijing could not afford to pay to protect national parks, so government officials created companies to do the job.

"This is a special system for a special time," said Fan Yezheng, an assistant professor at the China Institute of Tourism. "Originally these sites belonged to all of us. Now suddenly they belong to a few people. This is full of hidden dangers."

Large swaths of Qufu, the birthplace of China's famed scholar Confucius -- including the Confucian Temple, the Confucius Family Mansion and the Confucian Cemetery, all listed in the U.N. Catalogue of Global Cultural Heritage Sites -- are managed by Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Economic  Development Co. That firm is known mostly for running a Disney World-like theme park in the southern city of Shenzhen, where China's ethnic minorities, dressed in traditional costumes, dance and sing for visitors.

The Shenzhen firm was the focus of media attention in China recently when, in attempting to clean the Confucius sites, it blasted ancient frescoes and other parts of the old houses with water, causing paint to flake and the wooden walls to buckle.

Legions of terra cotta warriors and ancient emperors' tombs outside the ancient capital of Xi'an, one of the most popular tourist destinations for Americans, are run by two firms listed on Chinese stock exchanges, Shaanxi Tourism Group and the Xi'an Tourism Group. The latter also owns an aircraft carrier-cum-amusement park in the port of Tianjin. China's government opposed the creation of those two companies, but when asked to provide more money to protect the world-famous clay army, it could not, tourism experts said.

Sections of the Great Wall north of Beijing are run by a firm controlled in part by Beijing Enterprises Holdings Ltd., which also makes wine, runs water-treatment plants and is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. The jewel in its crown, a section of the wall known as Ba Da Ling, looks like a glitzy shopping arcade.

China's system for protecting its natural and cultural sites is a jumble of competing ministries and bureaus. They include organizations such as the Construction Ministry, which oversees national scenic areas, China's version of national parks; the Cultural Relics Bureau; the Forestry Department; and the Tourism Department.

The organizations routinely compete to control natural and cultural areas of importance around China because more areas under their control means more possibility for profit. Local governments also often turn the less interesting parts of a scenic region into a national protected area and then turn the best parts over to developers, according to Zou Tongqian, an expert on tourism at China Institute of Tourism.

Huangshan, which means Yellow Mountain, got its name in the 8th century from China's great Tang Dynasty poet, Li Bo. Huangshan is to Chinese iconography what the Grand Tetons are to the United States. For centuries, Chinese scholars, painters, poets and warriors have etched characters into its granite face declaring its grandeur, among them Zhu De, the late Communist general.

On Huangshan, the leading proponent of privatization is Li Zhi, general manager of the Huangshan Tourism Development Co. Talking shareholder value from one side of his mouth and preservation from the other, Li, a thoughtful 50-year-old, said he recognizes the contradiction inherent in his work.

"What we're doing is not just an experiment for China," he said in a recent interview during a glorious day on the mountain, where the highest peak is 5,900 feet. "It's an experiment for the whole world."

Li has two cards. One says he is the firm's general manager. The other lists him as a deputy director of the Management Committee of the Huangshan Scenic Area, the government bureau that is supposed to control Huangshan. "We are a first-rate national scenic area," he said, speaking as a bureaucrat. "And we've got a monopoly on a first-rate national scenic area," he added as a businessman.

Li's argument goes like this: In a country with practically no money for nature, privatization is the only way. Fifteen years ago, when Huangshan was run completely by the state, it was a mess. The state-run China Daily reported on March 10, 1986, that nearly 6,000 tons of trash lined the 44-mile path through the park. Local logging companies were felling trees at a ferocious rate. Most of the streams were polluted. "We were facing a vicious cycle," Li said. "The less money we had, the fewer people came. The state wasn't giving us any money. We couldn't pay salaries. If you have no money, how can you protect anything?"

Today, Huangshan is spotless. A team of 525 attendants picks up trash throughout the day. The firm also has contracted with companies outside the park to do laundry and clean vegetables for its many restaurants to avoid further water pollution. Forest cover has increased from 60 percent in the 1980s to 86 percent.

Before the firm was listed on the stock market, no more than 800,000 tourists journeyed to Huangshan. Last year, 1.1 million came. But critics say the firm's development policies will ultimately hurt the mountain. In the last few years, it has added two hotels to its holdings, bringing the total to 12, even though its hotel profits are collapsing. Three cable car runs, including the longest in Asia, crisscross the mountain cliffs. Foot traffic on the peak is higher than ever. Several trails have been closed because of overuse.

As part of his firm's expansion plans, Li has exported Huangshan's management model elsewhere in China. Now his firm manages five other scenic areas, including an ancient Taoist retreat. Huangshan also is negotiating with the government in Yan'an, the cave-dotted mountain redoubt of China's Communist Party during World War II, to manage its treasure trove of revolutionary facilities.

In April, the Construction Ministry banned companies from listing any more national scenic areas on Chinese stock exchanges. And Chinese officials have forced several scenic regions to knock down hotels or illegal developments. One region, the Zhangjiajie forest in Hunan, spent $36 million to do so.

However, provincial governments, often in defiance of national authorities in Beijing, are opening local scenic areas to private developers at a terrific pace. Sichuan recently announced that it will auction 10 sites, including the Jiuzhaigou Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to outside investors. If the plan works, an additional 100 sites will be available.

Source: Washington Post Foreign Service, 5 July 2001,

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A19962-2001Jul4?language=printer

 


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