While ecotourism may be a growing luxury buzzword worldwide, it’s still at an early stage in China—but this is changing quickly as a host of high-end eco-resorts are cropping up across the country.
For example, an onsite organic farm, water purification system, Tesla transportation, and support for local conservation are some of the sustainability initiatives that can be found at the the new Six Senses resort at Qing Cheng Mountain outside Chengdu that opened in June 2015. The eco-friendly five-star resort brand has only nine locations worldwide, and joins several companies that have been launching eco-tourism ventures in China over the past five years.
Many eco-luxury resorts have been springing up across China in nature areas just outside urban centers where they can serve as an escape from China’s smog-choked cities, including Naked Retreats and Le Passage at Moganshan outside Shanghai, the Brickyard at the Great Wall outside Beijing, or the Yun House Boutique Eco-Resort in Guangxi outside Guilin.
Sustainability is a key focus for properties at a time when China faces serious pollution problems with air, soil, and water. The Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain resort is part of a company with conservation built into its corporate structure—all properties are built with eco-friendly construction techniques and the main global office conducts environmental performance tracking on all its properties, offering rewards to its resorts that perform the best at energy conservation, recycling, and reducing waste. They also participate in local corporate social responsibility initiatives related to conservation. Since Qing Cheng Mountain is located in the heart of Sichuan’s panda country and is near a panda research base, the resort opts to work with panda NGOs.
The Sichuan resort’s massive organic farm located on the property is one of the main draws for most Chinese guests, says its marketing manger Una Zhang. At the moment, most customers are attracted to the promise of food safety as concerns about contaminated soil and dangerous pesticides grow among China’s affluent.
A March 2016 survey by McKinsey found that food is the top category consumers plan to spend more on if their incomes increase, while “organic” was listed as the top criteria for evaluating food safety. According to Zhang, one woman from Chengdu had just booked one of the resort’s suites for herself and her child for a two-month period with plans to only eat food from the resort as a form of detox from typical urban fare.
The resort’s farm-to-table restaurant Farm2Fork features labeled menu items for dietary restrictions, as well as a special “pay-what-you-want” chef’s table, and is planning on rolling out guided meal plans for nutrition or dieting. It also holds a farmers’ market every Sunday during the growing season.
Interest in food safety tends to outshine that of other sustainability efforts in the eyes of Chinese consumers. “Frankly speaking, Chinese guests are not yet really into the ‘hey, let’s reduce using plastic,’” says Zhang, referring to the brand’s onsite water purification process that serves two purposes: providing a solution to dealing with China’s undrinkable tap water, as well as serving all water in reusable glass bottles rather than relying on plastic like most hotels. She believes more education is needed on the sustainability side. “When you tell them, they think, ‘hey this is a good thing—we should do this. This is very good.’ They never say no. If you don’t tell them, they will not even think of this.”
Zhang also notes that many of the wealthy urbanites coming out to the resort are bringing children with no exposure to agriculture. “A lot of Chinese families like to bring their kids to the organic farm. Because in our day, I don’t think the city kids know about farms; they don’t know about animals—they don’t really see a lot of fresh stuff.”
As a result of the strong interest in health, eco-resorts’ dual emphasis on both sustainability and wellness is also a big draw for Chinese travelers. Six Senses has localized its spa and wellness services for the China market, offering a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner along with its typical spa treatments, as well as tai chi and meditation classes in addition to yoga.
According to Zhang, localized services are especially popular. “Here, yoga is not as popular as tai chi. In other Six Senses resorts, yoga is number one.” The resort even cooperates with the famous nearby Puzhao Temple to offer morning classes in the monks’ meditation chamber with a tai chi master. Guests are given traditional tai chi clothes, and the class is followed by a zen tea ceremony and vegetarian breakfast.
Organic food and eco-travel aren’t just exclusive to rural resorts, however, as many restaurants and hotels within China’s cities work to adopt similar practices. For example, Shanghai eco-hotel URBN boasts its carbon-neutral status, while the newly reopened Peninsula Beijing’s fine dining restaurant Jing focuses on farm-to-table gastronomy.