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Tour buses work to protect China’s national parks

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It’s the height of the tourism season in China. And there are some estimate the country’s new middle class will make more than two billion domestic trips this year.

So, how will all those tourists affect Chinese national parks? Marketplace’s China Bureau Chief Rob Schmitz reports.

Rob Schmitz: This is how the Chinese travel: in groups, by bus. They go to places like Jiuzhai Valley. This national park in Western China is known as China’s Yellowstone. It’s got snowy mountains, pristine turquoise-colored lakes, and now — lots of people. Tens of thousands of people a day.

Fifteen years ago, this was a Tibetan area deep in the mountains; it was a couple of days’ drive from the nearest big city. Now there’s an airport, five-star hotels and a train line will soon carry more tourists from the rest of China.

Xu Ronglin helps manage the park.

Xu Ronglin: We used to let tour buses into the park, and they were a nuisance: they were loud, people threw garbage out of the windows and the air became dirty from their exhaust.

Xu and his staff saw the writing on the wall: each year would bring more urban Chinese who had little regard for the environment. The solution? Xu knew most Chinese tourists prefer to sightsee by tour bus and aren’t keen on hiking. So his crew banned traffic from the park, limiting tourists to cleaner buses fueled by natural gas.

When they get off the bus, tourists are corralled onto boardwalks that limit them to the most photogenic parts of the park. That’s a smart move, according to Travis Klingberg, a Ph.D student at the University of Colorado who specializes in Chinese tourism.

Travis Klingberg: And so by concentrating the development onto roads and boardwalks and minimizing where the crowds of people go, in a way has saved the rest of the park from being trampled.

And that’s the way many tourists here prefer it. Zhang Zhaowei, a tourist from the city of Xi’an, says he likes the fact that Jiuzhai Valley is crowded with tourists. He says it’s no fun traveling alone. No worries there: domestic tourism is expected to increase 50 percent in the next four years, generating revenue equal to 10 percent of China’s GDP.

In Jiuzhai Valley, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

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