Panda tourism may not help China’s people

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Tourism can boost conservation in China’s valued panda preserves, but it isn’t an automatic ticket out of poverty for the human inhabitants, a new study shows.

According to the Michigan State University researchers, those who benefit most from nature-based tourism endeavors are often people who already have resources. The truly impoverished have a harder time breaking into the tourism business.


The study, published in the current edition of PLoS One, looks at nearly a decade of burgeoning tourism in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwestern China.

China, like many areas in the world, is banking on tourism over farming to preserve fragile animal habitat while allowing people to thrive. But until now, no one has taken a close look at the long-term economic implications for people.

Wei Liu, lead author and doctoral student at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, and his colleagues took advantage of the center’s 15-year history of work in Wolong to study the complex interactions of humans and nature.

“This study shows the power of having comprehensive long-term data to understand how everything works together,” Liu says. “This is the first time we’ve been able to put it together to understand how changes are being made.”

China, Liu says, has a political structure that heavily favors social connections. The group studied the impact of having resources in Wolong. Already having money, being educated and having relationships with governmental officials greatly increased a person’s chances of being successful in nature-based tourism.

Lacking these resources made it harder, which is significant since many of China’s programs and initiatives aim to lift people out of poverty.

“The policies haven’t yet reached their full potential,” Liu says. “But now we have the data to show what’s happening.”

Liu says this research can help China—and other countries around the world—with the next steps of policy to balance tourism with habitat management. The area is working hard to rebuild from the 2011 earthquake that triggered the devastating tsunami, just as other developing tourism areas are challenged by natural disasters.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA. Jack Liu’s research also is supported by Michigan State’s AgBioResearch.

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