Wealthy tourists return to their roots with green tours

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 September, 2010, 12:00am

Wealthy Chinese are increasingly interested in eco-travel and they are prepared to shell out for tailor-made tours. Agencies such as Wild China and Eco-tour China are capitalising on that demand by offering treks into the wild, stays with minority families and even 'voluntourism' holidays, during which participants might help teach poor children or work on a village project.

Wild China used to cater mainly to wealthy foreign clients but these days they are also signing up local tycoons who are becoming more interested in environmental issues. The tours are a way to learn about how they can help, says company founder Zhang Mei (left).

'These are people who made their money when China opened up. A lot of them came from humble backgrounds, or had rough early years. They have been drinking 15,000 yuan [HK$17,000] bottles of French wines, they know the Park Hyatt and Aman resorts and now they want to go back to their roots.

'They are not looking for a tourist experience. They will take hikes on wilderness trails to really experience the glory of nature.'

On a tour of a panda reserve in Sichuan, for example, visitors are not guaranteed a sighting but the group will be accompanied by an expert who can explain about the local flora and fauna. 'It is a learning journey,' Zhang says.

'These are Chinese who are starting to question their heritage, what they will leave behind and the future of China's environment. For China, of course, the biggest problem is protecting natural resources, with so many millions on the move, [reducing] carbon footprints and destruction of the trails.'

Zhang is convinced that eco-tourism will be a major growth area, among local and foreign tourists. She is well qualified to capitalise on it - the Harvard Business School graduate grew up in rural Yunnan and has hiked many of the mainland's wilderness regions.