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Doctoral thesis, 2016

Political ecology of Shangri-La: A study of environmental discourse, tourism development and environmental subjects

Zhang, Jasmine


Within the context of China’s environmental changes that closely related with its rapidly expanding economy what can we learn from looking at tourism there from a political ecology perspective? Political ecologists have contributed to the politicization of discussions around the complex network of relationship that exists between nature and society. At places where economic development and environmental deterioration confront one another, tourism regularly is advocated and often adopted as a possible resolution for alternative modes of development without further compromising ecological relationships. Examining tourism in the context of political ecology therefore becomes inevitable.

This study is geographically situated in Shangri-La in Southwest China. Located in the Sino-Tibetan borderland and within a natural World Heritage Site; The Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area. Shangri-La is a habitat historically shared by various ethnicities and nonhuman speices. Since the late 1990s, tourism development has been vigorously promoted. My own long-term engagement with Shangri-La, in particular Pudacuo National Park, dates from 2007 and includes an eight-month period of ethnographic fieldwork in Pudacuo National Park and Niru Village in 2013 and I continue to regularly visit Shangri-La till today. Drawn from the experiences, conversations and observations I had in Shangri-La over years, I view tourism as a process of “worldmaking” (Hollinshead, 2016) rather than simply as an industry. In order to understand this process of tourism “worldmaking”, I examine not only the political economy background of (eco)tourism development in Shangri-La, but also the constant interactions and exchanges between different perceptions/regimes of ‘nature’ realized through tourism development. I argue that in tourism “worldmaking” we can no longer view ‘nature’ singularly, as ‘capitalist nature’, ‘organic nature’ or ‘techno-nature’. Instead we need to recognize ‘hybrid natures’ that result from hybridization of these other, different ideas of ‘nature’ which constitute an ‘environmental discourse’. Through a critique of ‘Green Tibetan’, I identify individuals who, as ‘environmental subjects’, have experienced changes of livelilhood, often working within or alongside tourism development. These environmental subjects simultaneously hold different regimes of nature; thus are constantly enacting ‘hybrid natures’ through their being and becoming. I argue that these individuals are always in a process of translating and appropriating of ‘environmental discourse’ into their own thinking and practicing, which in turn allows them to contribute back to the ‘environmental discourse’, through tourism “worldmaking”.

Through integrating political ecology and tourism studies, the contributions to knowledge emanating from my thesis therefore are four-fold: the fieldwork conducted in Shangri-La provides a place-based and historically situated analysis of environmental subjectivities in the context of tourism development. Second, the thesis helps to recognize the formation of environmental subjects within the environmental discourse and, recognizing the production of environmental subjects explains how individuals carry out the hybridization of different nature regimes, as well as contributing to each. Thirdly, this, in turn, helps us to better understand tourism “worldmaking”, with which we can use to examine ecotourism and perhaps other kinds of tourism more generally. Finally, the thesis deconstructs the long-held binaries/beliefs in tourism about the relationships between culture and nature and discusses how tourism should be recognized as contributing to political ecology studies by continuously unsettling predetermined concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’, and ‘modernity’.


political ecology; Shangri-La; Southwest China; environmental discourse; tourism development; environmental subject; critical tourism studies; worldmaking

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Publisher: University of Otago

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Economic Geography
    Human Geography

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