China's Rafting Industry: How Far Will It Grow?

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Mon, 06/07/2010 - 08:45

Maling River, GuizhouMaling River, GuizhouFor the past three weeks or so I have been in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, where I have been preparing China Rivers Project’s next research project: “China’s Rafting Industry: How far will it grow?” One of CRP’s objectives is to get more folks in China interested in rafting/kayaking, and simultaneously to increase their awareness of rivers and interest in protecting rivers. While there is a lot we can do with the trips we organize, in recent years we have heard rumors of hundreds of small rafting companies setting up operations on short stretches of river in eastern China.

This is great if it is true! This equates to probably millions of Chinese people every year being exposed to the joys of rafting, and beginning to grow an appreciation for free flowing rivers. What if we could influence rafting companies to incorporate environmental education in their trips? What if companies themselves were to stand up to water projects that threaten their livelihoods? Is China’s rafting industry poised to make an impact on river conservation efforts, as rafting has in other parts of the world?

There is a lot we still don’t know about these companies, or the rivers they raft. Some popular rafting destinations in China are little more than manmade ramps, built with just enough roughness to make them exciting, relying on reservoir outflows to lure the weekend rafting crowd. But some destinations – like the Maling River in western Guizhou, or like the Min River area in southern Sichuan – are natural and scenic, and have important ecological values.

I am working on this project with Professor Ralf Buckley, an expert kayaker, and Director of Griffith University’s International Center for Ecotourism Research in Australia, and Duan Lian, a new rafting enthusiast, and faculty at the Ecotourism Institute at SW China Forestry College. We are first looking to understand where things stand now with the industry, and the opportunities and obstacles to growth, particularly conservation-oriented growth. Our research project will take us over the next few months to several of the most popular rafting destinations in southwest and southeast China, and we will also head to as to Beijing, where we hope to gather country-wide data from the National Watersports Association.

My hope is that this project will better prepare CRP to help support raft companies to improve their “triple bottom line” (economic, social, and environmental benefits). More broadly, the research will contribute a better understanding of how tourism and tourists in China are changing and how decisions are being made about water resource use and tourism. We think the research will be well received here in China, first because this kind of public research project on China’s national rafting resources has not been done.

Also, there is great interest in Chinese academia (and elsewhere) about ecotourism – what it means, and how it can be achieved. Hundreds of tourism departments of Chinese Universities are hard at work helping the mass tourism industry incorporate ecotourism concepts. Indeed, ecotourism (“shentai luyou”) is a bit of a buzzword here, and the buzz it creates is closely linked with hopes of increased profits.

There are, however, many companies and projects that do offer possibly more genuine ecotourism in China. According to The International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

This is a simple idea but in practice challenging to achieve. We strive to offer this kind of tourism to participants in our raft trips, and we wonder if anyone else running rivers for profit has the same idea.

Over the next couple months I will be blogging about our field work experiences, and I will let you know what we find out!