With rapid growth of tourism in China beginning in the late 1970s, tourism has come to play an important role in the regional economic development, conservation of resources, and decentralisation of economic activity from China's east coast to the whole of China. This thesis provides an inter-disciplinary study of the economics, environmental considerations and regional distribution of tourism, especially international tourism, in China in the recent two decades.
Regional economic disparity, as indicated by the level of GDP and GDP per capita by locality, has in general increased between China's east coast and the inland areas since the middle 1980s compared to the Maoist period. Since excessive economic inequality within China may become the source of social and political instability, China is seeking measures that can assist the inland areas to catch up economically with the coastal areas. Tourism development is regarded by both policy-makers and local people to be beneficial for rural development.
Nevertheless, this thesis finds that international tourism development in China has reinforced rather than reduced regional inequalities. The regional inequality of tourism indicators are even greater than those of socio-economic indicators, with an obvious skew towards the east coast of China. However, the skew of international tourism in favour of the coastal areas of China has declined in the last decade. Domestic tourism and ecotourism seem more able to contribute to the economic development of inland areas than urban-oriented international tourism.
Although ecotourism has become almost a 'buzz' word, its definition and its operational significance is sometimes unclear. This term has been misused on many occasions to find an excuse to exploit resources that otherwise would be conserved. Both the concept of ecotourism and issues related to the evaluation of ecotourism resources are addressed in this thesis.
A case study is conducted on tourism development in Yunnan Province, China, to investigate the role of ecotourism in economic development and conservation, along with the spatial dispersion of tourism within Yunnan, which has resulted in four regional tourism centres. Many policy-makers in Yunnan regard tourism as a key industry or growth pole.
Several interior localities in China have targeted tourism as their key industry or growth pole, including Yunnan Province, and have experienced positive economic impacts from growth in tourism. Consequently, theories of growth poles and the extent a growth pole works in the local economy are discussed in this thesis. Input-output analysis is applied to test the multiplier linkage effects of tourism in Yunnan. The purpose is to clarify and quantify the extent to which the tourism industry may act as a growth pole or key industry in Yunnan.