China tries to build a coherent system of national parks

Roughly 18% of China is given over to national parks or protected areas of some sort. But there is no overarching system for managing or even designating such places; instead, they are subject to a complicated, overlapping and haphazard mix of local, provincial and national administration. Laoshan is a case in point. Since its establishment in 1991, its official status has changed multiple times, from a provincial scientific reserve to an environmental one to an “AAA-level touristic scenic spot”. Its current “national park” designation only appears on some signs.

For many Chinese visitors to America, the tourist itinerary has recently begun to include not only Disney World, Las Vegas and New York, but also national parks such as Yellowstone. In 2015 1.1m Chinese visited national parks and monuments in America, more than twice as many as three years earlier. Last year the national government began consulting the NPS and several NGOs with a view to creating a park system similar to America’s.

Bureaucratic turf wars are the biggest obstacle to reform. In some cases, one agency is responsible for the trees, another for the rivers and lakes, a third for the wildlife and a fourth for the roads leading to it all. The natural bureaucratic reluctance to cede power is all the greater where profits from tourism fees or concessions are at stake.

Rudy D’Alessandro of the U.S. National Park Service says Chinese officials have told him: “We don’t want you giving us your culture because we don’t always like your culture. But we admire your national parks and want to learn more about them.”

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