Last July, my friend, Donna and I went biking in a park in Taiwan during the democratic education conference’s day-off. We biked through perfect tree-lined paths designed to maximize the experience, both urban and natural. A few days ago, when my family and I biked along Erhai Lake, I immediately sent Donna a WeChat voice message, so excited that she must come over to Dali and bike with her daughter, Chong Chong.
Donna replied that she’d love to visit but the problem is, as a university professor, her vacations fall on the main holidays and on those dates, droves, hordes, flocks, throngs and masses of Chinese people travel to the most popular destinations. Donna asked, “Wouldn’t it be too crowded in Dali?” Feeling like an expert after only nine days in Dali, I reassure her there are places where not as many tourists go. Don’t worry. You just need to choose those places, not the ones with tickets and not the ones included in packaged tours.
On our first day biking around Erhai Lake, I was happy seeing places less inundated with tourists, because the old town alleys are too small to be reached by big tour buses. You’ll meet fellow bikers along the way but since the lake is so big, the tourists are dispersed throughout and not concentrated in one spot unlike a temple or pagoda.
However, on our second day exploring Erhai Lake, my opinion of tourism in Dali went way south again. I now understood what Mark the Monkey Man said about the “Disneyfication” of Dali. While the lake and mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, the built environment in some areas bear the heavy hand of greed for tourism money. To cover more ground and give our bodies a rest from biking, we took the car completely circumnavigating the lake and saw parts where the number and size of the guest houses are too big for comfort, some with design on the garish side. The guest houses which are renovations of old houses usually stay faithful to the scale but in areas where there’s no history of building to set the tone for organic evolution, entire hills are sadly destroyed by copy-paste, pastiche architecture.
How do you destroy a perfect hillside with a perfect view of the lake? Let buildings look like cemetery tombstones in their unnatural uniformity. There’s a difference between forced and organic growth. One is driven by multi-billion contracts and real estate moguls without conscience. An example seems to be a white-elephant of a hotel that looks like an ill-proportioned cruise ship docked unfortunately on one sensuous curve of the lake.
How many tourists do they expect to come? How many rich buyers do they want to attract with the lure of lakeside holiday homes? Is demand really growing that exponentially higher? Or are they going to step up marketing to keep occupancy revolving throughout the year? How many places in China have been ruined by insensitive and unsustainable tourism? How many places in the world for that matter? Is China’s tourism industry unique because of the sheer amount of population it seeks to serve and does that justify crass, untrammeled development? What defines over-development? Is there a formula to avoid it based on population and area? Does anyone care as long as there’s a buck to be made?
And don’t get me started on garbage — gorgeous sites marred by careless plastic bottles and packaging that decide to magically march all by themselves and sprawl dead on the ground. I’ve always wondered whether cleanliness is a function of economy, culture or education. Does it take an economically developed, culturally refined and educated citizenry to keep a country clean? How do you reach that level of economic, cultural and educational maturity so that people stop throwing things out of car windows and stop thinking it’s okay to leave trash in the forests, mountains and rivers because nature is so huge, nobody will notice it anyway and if nobody sees it done, it’s okay?
I’m not saying that only economically developed countries are protecting the environment. God knows all countries need to be held way, way more accountable but what we’re talking about here is the indiscriminate throwing of garbage. Some international media outfit ought to do a documentary on how tourism is destroying China — fast! How do you solve this conundrum of the most populous nation in the world with people who travel at more or less the same time? Color coding families or provinces like color coding cars to control traffic? How do you slow down market-driven demand? Can big-scale tourism be scaled down or is there no turning back? Are there nature preservationist groups or individuals who wield any clout and power?
What do I tell Donna now?
I want her to visit Dali but during the peak season, would there even be breathing space? There are two places where I can confidently take her but I need to search for more and keep it a secret.
A link to a CNN interview about a documentary: Is Tourism Destroying Our World?