Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Tourism in Tibet

For centuries, Tibet has played a special role in the imagination of travelers, who know it as the “roof of the world.” Because of its remoteness, many of these would-be adventurers could not reach the high plateau or see the snow-capped ranges, ancient monasteries and nomadic yak-herders. However, the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2006 gave people across the globe access to this cut-off region. By 2017, Tibet was the host of 25.61 million travelers worldwide, a 12-times growth compared to a decade ago. The exponential increase in tourism is a valuable income source for the local communities, but it also raises significant concerns about environmental degradation in this fragile ecological hotspot.

Blossoming peach trees in the spring in Bayi, Tibet, China (Source: Tibet Discovery/ Facebook).

Coupled with the critical timing for local authorities in China to flesh out the implementation details for the 13th Five-Year National Plan (2016-2020), the expected growth in tourism in Tibet poses a pressing challenge to ecological sustainability. In a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Mountains, six researchers from the Tibetan Plateau provide science-based suggestions for policymakers to decide where and how ecotourism should be conducted, so as to sustain both the distinctive cultural and natural landscapes of the region as well as the income source of its people.

Xiaoming Wang, a professor from the Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources of the Chinese Academy of Science, highlighted to GlacierHub the complexities of balancing environmental conservation and tourism development. “A view should be taken in a more systematic or national or even global manner for planning and policy development, or very often, actions for a short-term and local benefit may compromise long-term national interests. This is exactly what the environmental and climate researchers should start to pay an attention to,” Wang said.

The diversified landscape and geography of the study area, Bayi District, Tibet, China (Source: Kan et al. 2018).

The case study focused on the Bayi District located in southeast Tibet, close to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. The relatively accessible, mild-altitude plateau is a favorite tourist destination. Bayi District boasts stunning views from its highest cliffsides, awe-inspiring glaciers, the winding Yarlung Zangbo River, boundless grasslands dotted with yaks, religious traditions and the most hospitable people.

According to the authors, “the ecology [of Tibet] is fragile, and if it gets destroyed once, it will degrade and is difficult to be restored.” As the backbone of the local economic growth and even overall Tibet tourism, a more environmentally-minded tourism in Bayi District calls for further efforts to map out the vulnerabilities of different landscapes and adopt contextualized approaches.

Colorful autumn in Bayi District, Tibet, China (Source: Ping Lin/Creative Commons).

Traditional approaches were used to classify and assess the ecosystem components that may affect its vulnerability. In addition, the authors further introduced advanced spatial technologies. With these technologies, such as spatial principal component analysis, remote sensing, and GIS, the authors were able to “analyze the ecological vulnerability at a regional spatial scale.”

The data, such as land use and vegetation coverage, were retrieved from various databases, such as satellite data from NDVI, MODIS, and gauge data from 38 local meteorological stations of Tibet. The team also extracted and processed spatial variables, including the potential risk of geological disasters, landscape pattern disturbance, vegetation resilience, and tourism pressure from a GIS platform.

The ecological vulnerability range distribution map from this paper (Source: Kan, et al. 2018).

One of the study’s most significant products was a map that shows the ecological vulnerability levels of the different areas within the district. As the map suggests, the overall vulnerability degree of Bayi District is relatively high, and the vulnerability levels are distributed unevenly within the district. For example, the authors divided the district into five classes of vulnerability, from potentially vulnerable to mildly vulnerable and then to moderately, severely and extremely vulnerable. There were roughly similar proportions of each (14 percent, 21 percent, 18 percent, 27 percent and 20 percent respectively). The authors note that “areas of severe and extreme vulnerability were mainly located in … alpine pasture and glacier zones.”

These severe and extreme areas with steep slopes and valleys have an average altitude of 4,400-4,800 meters. During the beginning of the growing season (April to May), the abundant and intensive precipitation over these areas heightens the probability of soil erosion. Drought also strikes the area during the summertime as a result of the Indian monsoon movement. The relatively ecologically resilient regions are scattered along the river basin, where both the altitude and climate are milder to encourage rich vegetations and sound ecosystems.

The authors further translated their findings to classify the Bayi District into different functional areas for tourism, including regions for holistic ecotourism development, key ecological conservation and strict protection.

The region for holistic ecotourism development is composed of parts of both mild and moderate vulnerable regions and extends along the main road, accounting for 33 percent of the district. It is centered around Lulang Town and favorable to environmentally-minded tourism activities including glacier trekking, snow sports, and mountain trekking. According to the downscale version of 13th Five-Year Plan in Tibet, the “Lulang tourism town of Bayi District would be the key priority for the sustainable development of Tibetan ecotourism,” with detailed implementations under discussion.

The region for key protection is the area away from the main human activity areas, where explorers can immerse themselves in nature and visit the region’s pristine glaciers and lakes.

The remaining severe and extremely vulnerable areas are in the canyon, blanketed by grasslands and glaciers, and are classified as a region for strict protection. Thus, the authors note that limited access should be granted for scientific purposes.

In the paper, the researchers also express their hope that the local authorities of all the mountain tourism areas in China may use their analysis as a critical reference for more detailed policies to meet the 13th Five-Year Plan of China. As Emily Ting Yeh, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado who has spent her career in Tibetan areas, wrote to Glacierhub, “The idea of ecotourism is certainly a good one, but the problem is that it often does not work out in practice.” A comprehensive vulnerability assessment itself may be a good start, but is definitely not the end.

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