Why Is a Region in China Banning Glacier Tourism?

In order to protect the glaciers, tourists in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region will only be allowed to enjoy the sight of them from a distance, instead of walking on them, according to a proposed new regulation in China’s latest Five-Year Plan (2016-2020).

Local Kirgiz are building a simple bridge with roundwood on the tributary of the Tarim River, clear glacial melt water is the source of life. (source: Chinese National Geography, photo by George Steinmetz)
Kirgiz are building a bridge on a tributary of the Tarim River (source: George Steinmetz/Chinese National Geography)

Glaciers are “solid reservoirs” in dry regions such as Xinjiang, and thus an important water source. The accelerated destruction of the glaciers, affected by global warming, have led to water shortages in some areas of the country.

There are over 46,000 glaciers in China, with more than 18,000 located in Xinjiang, which accounts for about 43 percent of the national ice reserves by area. The Tian Shan Mountains is the “watertower of Central Asia,” with the most important, and the biggest, being the Urumqi Riverhead Glacier No. 1.

The temperature of Xinjiang, which is in China’s northwest, increased by 0.06 degrees Celsius per decade over the past 50 years, a rate which is much higher than the global average.The meltwater from the glacier has reduced after years of the glacier receding. Chen Xi from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) said that small glaciers at low altitudes are more sensitive to climate change.

“Glaciers in the Tianshan Mountains have receded by 15 to 30 percent in the last three decades,” Chen said, according to China Daily. “And they will continue to retreat by 60 percent in the next 20 years, and by 80 to 90 percent half a century from today.”

In recent years, glacier tourism in Xinjiang attracted large number of tourists, but the revenue has been relatively low, at less than one billion yuan ($152 million).

Li Jidong, party secretary of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Tourism Bureau, said according to ts news, “Glacier tourism brought in revenue of less than one billion yuan ($152 million) over the past dozen years, but the collapse of glaciers and loss from shrinking glaciers is incalculable.”

Up-close glacier travel will be banned in Xinjiang, according to the new policy. Xinjiang has called for other countries and regions along the Tianshan Mountains to stop glacier tourism as well according to Chinanews.

Tourists were going hiking on Tianshan Mountain glaciers
Tourists hiking on Tianshan Mountain glaciers (Source: Lianhe Wanbao)

However, Kang Shichang, director of State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences, Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Lanzhou, China, said a total ban on glacier travel is not supported by scientific reasoning.

There are hundreds of thousands of glaciers in the world, and few glaciers carry travelers, but overall glaciers are still in a state of retreat. In other words, glacier retreat is still happening, even though most of them are inaccessible to people. Therefore, the main cause of glacial retreat is not tourism.

“In the future I hope glacier travel managers attach more emphasis on the popularity of glaciers literacy and arouse awareness of environmental protection and emission reduction based on current situations,” Kang said in an email to GlacierHub.

Global warming is mainly responsible for glacier erosion. “Global glaciers are in an accelerated retreat trend nowadays, mainly due to global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions,” Kang said.

He has his own ideal model for glacier tourism: observe glaciers from a reasonable distance. Kang noted that human activities, such as hiking and skiing in glacial areas, are not the main reason for retreat. At the same time, he worried about other human activities, such as the large number of construction, mining and other industrial activities, disorderly foot traffic on the glacier surface, and garbage.

“The impact of these behaviors on glaciers is more severe by changing the surface albedo of glaciers, so lead to glacier melt acceleration,” Kang said.

He Yuanqing, master director of Yu Long Xue Shan Study Station, take a strong stand and takes Yu Long Xue Shan Mountain as an example; glacier tourism development can promote regional economic development.

“In fact, glacial retreat does little with tourism, because the heat released by the tourist crowds compared to the heat increase caused by atmospheric temperature rise is slight, even negligible,” he said, according to China Science Daily.

What needs to solved now is to figure out a practical glacier tourism development model to keep harmonious tourism development with glacier protection as a prerequisite.

No.1 Glacier of Tianshan Mountain (Source: travel.sohu.com)
No.1 Glacier of Tianshan Mountain (Source: travel.sohu.com)

Li Zhongqin told Glacierhub through the email, “Glacial retreat is mainly caused by global warming and ice albedo decrease ( pollutants on the ice) , the ice albedo  is subject to human activities , as for this pollutants problem, it can be solved through environmental protection and governance. However, global warming is not a local problem , it is difficult to protect glaciers through local governance. Moreover, the development and implementation of these policies are still under determined. ” And as Li Zhongqin said to China Science Daily, “The starting point is the balance development of ecology for this ban decision of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. And the key is to coordinate the relationship between tourism and protection, so we can strike a balance.”

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