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UPDATED: September 6, 2010 NO. 42 OCTOBER 17, 2002
Construction in Scenic Spots: Protection or Destruction?

In September 1998, after being sharply criticized by UNESCO officials for its "urbanization tendency," the Zhangjiajie-based Wulingyuan Scenic Spot in Hunan Province spent 300 million yuan to demolish the commercial facilities built in the scenic area. Though a series of regulations and measures have been promulgated in recent years, similar incidents have occurred. The large double-deck elevator installed recently in Zhangjiajie has triggered another round of debate.

The Bailong (Hundred Dragons) elevator has just been put into trial operation. With a total investment of 120 million yuan, the huge elevator was jointly financed by two Beijing companies and an American business, and began construction in October 1999. The 326-meter-tall double-deck elevator can carry up to 50 people at a time.

Local officials boasted that the elevator has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest outdoor elevator, the tallest double-deck elevator and the fastest passenger elevator with the largest loading capacity.

However, the elevator has been subject to mounting disputes and criticism since its construction began. Some hold that UNESCO listed Zhangjiajie on its World Heritage list in order to preserve its original beauty. Digging tunnels and shafts and building steel structures at the heritage site obviously go against that principle. In addition, the mountains are comprised primarily of quartz sandstone, so large scale construction should be avoided and the number of tourists should be reduced to help preserve the site, as the scenic spot already suffers from excessive tourism. For instance, five million tourists visited in 2000 alone. There is no need to build other facilities to attract visitors.

Natural beauty being ruined

Yang Dongping (Professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology and Vice Chairman of Friends of Nature, a nongovernmental environmental protection organization): To those who love nature and travel, it's not difficult at all to decide whether the elevator is helpful or a flaw.

Japan's Mount Fuji is 3,700 meters high, but there is no cableway. Even the roads on it reach no higher than 2,000 meters. Don't the Japanese know they can make more money through tourism development? We are always worshipping "the best or first so and so," which is really an antiquated way of thinking. With modern science and technology, even an underdeveloped area could easily create such world records so long as it wants to. But what kind of artificial creation can match the magnificent natural beauty? Do the cableways and elevators reflect our technological achievements or simply our shallowness and laziness? Why does such destructive construction happen in China again and again?

In the past, we always attributed such problems to people's low educational level and the lack of international experience. Now we see that's only part of it, and an unimportant part. Most local officials and investors have been abroad many times, and they still do this just for the huge profit. The Zhangjiajie elevator shows us the serious results of letting these sites become commercialized without restriction.

In recent years, in addition to criticism and advice from experts and scholars, the media have contributed enormously to the protection of natural and cultural heritage sites. Of course, not all media reports have been helpful. After a southern newspaper disclosed the elevator, an evening post reporter showered praise on it, saying "It reminds us of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World," and "I believe the elevator will become a symbol of Wulingyuan, just like the Eiffel Tower is to Paris." People have recently begun laughing at such projects, joking that they are like giving the equator a gilt edge and surrounding the Pacific with a balustrade. Maybe the reporter thinks that would be "marvelous." With social progress, tourists will shun the cableways built at Taishan (mountain) and Huashan (mountain), along with the elevator at Zhanjiajie. If they are not demolished within the next few decades, they will become a standing joke for generations to come. They will point at the rusty steel and say, "Look at those ugly things our fathers built. How ridiculous they look!"

Buildings in natural scenic spots should be demolished

Li Dihua (Center for Landscape Architecture and Planning, Peking University): The elevator at Wulingyuan may be very popular among some Chinese tourists. The tourists want to reach the mountain peak with no sweat at all. You will agree with me on this point if you have a look at them-the men wear leather shoes, the women high-heels. Why don't they wear sneakers? Most tourists do not know why they are there at all. Maybe they are very content with having been there once, and later can boast to other people.

While the elevator riders may look down on those climbing to the top as penny pinchers, the climbers should feel proud of themselves for taking the challenging way. Modern society has progressed to the point where no problems are regarded as technical difficulties. But some are afraid that this is also a dangerous age. With technology replacing much of the work formerly done by men, our lifestyle has lost something.

In the long run, most buildings will be removed from natural sites. Public support is very important in this regard. What tourists should do first is to change their concepts of sightseeing. When we go to a world heritage site, what else should we do but listen to birds singing, breathe fresh air and observe the plants and animals?

We do it for protection

Sun Delong (Bailong elevator manager): I do not agree with the experts. They say building elevators will harm the mountain. But as we all know, the mountain is lifeless. When digging the tunnels, many steel structure and roof bolts were installed. They can consolidate the mountain. If a light earthquake happens, the mountain will be less vulnerable to collapse than others. So can you deny it's protective?

The successful operation of the elevator offers a model for other scenic spots. At present, we also have the intention of cooperating with some equipment suppliers to deal with the traffic problem in scenic spots.

Keep an open mind

Wang Zhe (Tourist): The elevator has already been put into operation. The disputes on whether it should have been built or not mainly are between the naturalists and the modernists. The former hold that the scenic spot should maintain its original appearance, while the latter want to get everything done efficiently and hope to see results as quickly as possible with the minimum amount of work. Their conclusions are a natural result of their own points of view, and can't be judged simply as right or wrong. Either could be right, depending on the specific conditions.

Some people really love the primeval natural beauty, but others simply want to have a look around and don't want to be exhausted just enjoying scenery. Everybody wants to have an easy and relaxing trip, and most only tires themselves when they have to. The elevator would be welcome, I think. It will greatly facilitate tourists' visits. But if you don't want to use it, you can do exactly as you like. So it depends on the tourists' choice. If most of them prefer climbing the mountain instead of taking it, we can say it should not have been built.

Humankind must make some sacrifices in the process of adapting to and altering nature. The world cannot keep its original look forever. For instance, many cities have demolished historical buildings and built new ones. The house I lived in 30 years ago has been replaced with a skyscraper. It only appears in my mind now. Personally I wish it could have been preserved, but it had to make way for the city's development, even though it reflected the city's past.

The natural environment can't be preserved exactly as it is, just as we cannot live in the past. The questions are, how much should we alter it, and what methods should be used. If everything should be like as it was, we should not build highways either. So we must be open-minded toward some alterations to nature.


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