Qingyuan, an hour or so north of Guangzhou, is known at least by locals as China’s “First Great Travel County.” With fourteen different raft companies within 50 kilometer radius, we felt it imperative to come check out Qingyuan’s offerings as part of our current study of China’s raft industry. Sports bureau friends in Beijing claimed this area offered the most successful example of raft tourism in China, a model for the rest of the country to follow.
We decided to focus our inquiry on two of the more long-standing and popular operations: Huanteng Canyon and Xuanzhen Old Cave Ecotourism Area. The style of rafting that has developed at these and the 13 other nearby destinations is a factor of the landscape, the demands of nearby population centers, and the decisions of a few of the early successful entrepreneurs. The basic template is: purchase land use rights around one of the small streams flowing out of the nearby Bajia range, dam up the stream to manage flow, build an access road, and then channelize and harden the stream bed to create a smooth and safe ride of about one hour.
Guests ride facing each other in 2-person rafts manufactured in nearby Foshan. (The manufacturer helped set up the first rafting company in this area in 2001.) No paddles are used, though small water scoops (the kind used for flushing the toilet in much of SE Asia) are popular multipurpose accessories.
Where the raft streams hit the broad alluvial plain of the Pearl River delta, the companies pour giant parking lots that can handle dozens of giant tour buses, which often carry workers from nearby factory towns. The rafting companies add to their facilities, as means allow, a selection of: reception centers, swimming pools, water slides, hotels, conference centers, restaurants, barbecue pits, paint ball/war games operations, ropes courses, massage parlors, and tea houses.
Most of the folks we surveyed at both of our case study sites enjoyed the rafting, emerging from the float cool-skinned and placid, while we stood with our clipboards sweating in the sticky summer heat. At Huanteng Xia, my colleague and I decided to give the run a try. But we were both sorry to find the experience rather unpleasant. First and foremost, we are both probably biased from having become accustomed to an entirely different kind of rafting. But here are the more objective factors that got in the way of our enjoyment:
a) The crowds. We had to wait in line about 40 minutes to get our boat, and then there were probably 500 other boats bumping along on the river with us.
b) The water fighting. Some not in good fun, but rather seemingly propelled from deep, pent up male aggression.
c) The rapids. The steep twisting concrete chutes felt like something to be endured, akin to accidentally falling into a flooding storm drain, rather than something fun. With no paddles, we were constantly ricocheting off the sides and had several near tips.
d) The risks. We had seen the bloodied elbows, knees, and rears at the takeout, and each drop brought these visions to mind.
e) The lack of calm water. Though some of the mossy, vine-filled creek might have been quite lovely, we had no chance to sit back and enjoy it.
Rafting is considered ecotourism in China, and much of the literature on places like Huanteng canyon emphasizes the opportunity to experience and see the beauty of nature. It has already become obvious to me, as it has to others, that ecotourism in China is something quite different from the no-impact, community-driven model advanced by The International Ecotourism Society (www.ties.org). It will be interesting to further analyze our surveys to find out how many guests are motivated to raft by the idea of being in nature; being based in nature seems to be the one criterion for a product to be labeled ‘ecotourism’ here.