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Local Guides, Less Plastic: How China’s Tourism Industry Is Trying to Improve Its Sustainability

Fortune Global Sustainability Forum 2019Fortune Global Sustainability Forum 2019
Mei Zhang, founder of WildChina, urges tourism operators to go local as a way to be more sustainable at Fortune's Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan, China. Stefen Chow—Fortune

Typical tourism is not environmentally-friendly: Air travel emits carbon, hotels and resorts burn through water and energy, and overcrowding of natural wonders diminishes biodiversity.

Sustainable tourism—centering on tourists lowering their carbon footprints, promoting local jobs, and learning about the place they are visiting—has emerged in response to traditional tourism’s harmful side effects, and in China, private companies and local governments alike are pushing the concept.

Mei Zhang, who founded the luxury tour operator WildChina, said at Fortune’s Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan, China on Friday that the Chinese tourism industry needs to find out how to involve local people in tourism by letting them tell their own stories.

WildChina is a small company, but bigger brands are no less concerned about the need to adopt more sustainable, local practices.

Qian Jin, Hilton’s president for Greater China and Mongolia, said the mega-chain is taking steps in its Chinese branches to reduce waste by replacing plastic bottles in guest rooms with glass bottles, purchasing sustainably-sourced seafood for hotel restaurants, and encouraging guests to use electric vehicles and hotel-provided bicycles.

The changes are part of a global brand shift for Hilton, which ran an ad campaign saying it will cut its environmental footprint in half by 2030.

For local Chinese governments, especially in small towns with economies that depend on tourists who come to experience natural beauty, the sustainability question is even more pressing.

Zhang Dehua, the mayor of Yuxi city in Yunnan province, said he is committed to creating a sustainable tourism industry in his town. Zhang compared Yuxi’s local Fuxian Lake to China’s giant pandas—both are “nationally invaluable,” attracting huge numbers of tourists, and both are threatened by environmental degradation.

“We want to make sure not a drop of polluted water falls into Fuxian Lake,” Zhang said.

To that end, the Yuxi government has stepped up protective measures in the last few years: tighter boating regulations, a swimming ban, a buffer zone between the lake and factories and houses, and a plan to convert the land around the lake into the biggest wetlands park in China, “making sure to strike the balance between tourism and eco-protection.”

“We want to build Fuxian Lake into an eco-model for China,” Zhang said.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Watch here: Fortune Global Sustainability Forum 2019 livestream
—Impossible Foods wants China to make its own meat
—Dow CEO Jim Fitterling has a counter-argument to the plastic backlash
—Former Sinopec chairman says Chinese executives think climate change can wait
—China’s Yangtze river basin—the world’s third-largest economy—is at great risk
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