STRIKING a balance between preservation and tourism has been a delicate issue faced by the Chinese Government in managing the world famous Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, according to Fan Jinshi, deputy director of the Dunhuang Academy.
Speaking at a forum organised by the Asia Society in Hong Kong, Ms Fan who has spent more than 30 years in researching and managing the grottoes, said the task still involved a learning process.
Made up of 492 caves, the Mogao Grottoes are considered a treasure-trove of Buddhist manuscripts, wall paintings and statues.
Some of these relics date back to as early as the 5th century.
The Mogao Grottoes were declared a national treasure by the State Council in 1961 and opened to tourists 18 years later.
Since then, Chinese and foreign tourists have flocked to Gansu to visit this world wonder.
In 1993, about 500,000 people paid visits to the area.
Ms Fan said the grottoes were such a big boost to tourism in Gansu that the income they generated accounted for 8.9 per cent of the annual output in the province last year.
But the influx of tourists is putting a great strain on the preservation efforts of the academy and many of the caves suffered from vandalism by insensitive tourists, she said.
Although the academy, which is responsible for the management of the grottoes, has implemented a number of measures to prevent vandalism and regulate the flow of visitors, Ms Fan said some of the measures were not perfect.
For example, she said the installation of glass panels in the caves helped stopped vandalism but their reflection obscured visitors' views.
Moreover, the deputy-director said the academy had not installed lights in the caves as it was yet to find a solution to the problem of infra-red light damaging the wall paintings.
She admitted that shortage of funds was a major problem the academy faced but denied it had wanted to raise money by turning the site into an amusement park.
According to Ms Fan, the idea of an amusement park was raised by tourism departments but it had never been studied by experts or approved by the Government.
'Once this was publicised in the newspapers, people thought we were definitely going ahead with the plan,' she added.
She said the academy understood very well that the grottoes would not stand unless it could also preserve the nearby environment.
Although the grottoes managed to earn more than three million yuan (about HK$2.8 million) in ticket sales last year, Ms Fan said that the academy needed more if it was to achieve its goal of not just preserving the grottoes but turning them into a 'classroom for society'.
She declined to reveal the financial shortfall the academy faced but said it would be able to carry out more research and publish more periodicals if extra funds could be raised.