PROGRESS IN GEOGRAPHY ›› 2016, Vol. 35 ›› Issue (6): 665-678.doi: 10.18306/dlkxjz.2016.06.001

• Special Column: Ecocivilization and Tourism •     Next Articles

Outdoor tourism in China: A foreigner’s 30-year retrospective

BUCKLEY RalfInternational Chair in Ecotourism Research, Griffith University, Australia 4222()   

  • Online:2016-06-23 Published:2016-06-23
  • Supported by:
    Chinese Academy of Sciences Visiting Professorship for Senior International Scientists, No.2013T2Z0012


In this contribution I provide a foreigner’s perspective on the growth and development of outdoor tourism in China over the past three decades or more. This is the perspective of someone who does not speak Chinese, but who has been privileged to visit some of China’s outstanding outdoor tourism destinations over an extended period, and observe social, economic and environmental changes as they took place. A foreigner’s perspective is always more limited than that of Chinese scholars, but it may still provide a useful counterpart. I describe three main historical phases. The first took place in the 1980s, before the development of large scale domestic or inbound international tourism. I provide some historical anecdotes which may be of interest to Chinese university students. The second phase was the gradual opening of China to international inbound tourism, and its inclusion as a favoured destination by global tourists. The third phase has two components: the enormous growth of Chinese domestic tourism, largely in cultural and economic isolation from the international tourism industry; and the simultaneous growth of Chinese outbound tourism, closely linked to the international industry. China now has a very large domestic outdoor tourism sector, and a much smaller but nonetheless significant international inbound sector. The former includes: visits to scenic parks, nature reserves, forest reserves, and traditional cultural sites; specialist Chinese adventure activities such as piaoliuziyou; and internationally widespread outdoor mountain activities such as trekking and mountaineering, and outdoor coastal activities such as surfing and kiteboarding. The latter includes, e.g., climbing Mt. Everest from the northern side; rafting in Tibet, Yunnan and Szechuan; off-road and bicycle tours, and riverboat cruises. From a research perspective, the key issue for foreigners is that whilst many Chinese scholars can read English, and many International publications are translated to Chinese, the reverse does not apply: few foreigners are familiar with the Chinese language, and hence with the Chinese academic literature. From a foreign researcher’s perspective, therefore, cooperative projects with Chinese colleagues are of enormous value. As regards research topics in outdoor tourism, there are three broad approaches which can perhaps prove valuable in future. The first is to ensure that innovations in the international literature are also applied in China, as immediately as possible. That is, China should benefit from global research, and China should be included in international comparative studies. That can only occur if relevant research in China is published in internationally accessible journals. The second is that since China now forms a very large component in global tourism, as well as in the world economy and population more broadly, it is critical for foreign researchers that they can gain access to Chinese research findings. Foreign researchers understand that outdoor tourism in China is influenced by scale, history and culture, but they are not yet in a position to follow how those factors influence the many rapid changes occurring within the Chinese domestic tourism sector. We would like to know more, and understand better. As just one example, China now has a surf tourism subsector. Where does that fit into the international surfing industry? The third is that as more and more Chinese outdoor tourists travel overseas, their culturally driven expectations may not always match what international tourism enterprises provide. Chinese clients are influencing the outdoor tourism industry in other countries; and when they return home, they may also influence the outdoor tourism industry within China. The role of tourism in these cultural exchanges and interactions provides fascinating opportunities for social science research at present.

Key words: outdoor tourism, foreigner’s perspective, China