Regional Development

Sustainable or Not? Tourism Development in Agricultural Heritage Sites

  • SUN Yehong , 1, 2, 3 ,
  • SONG Yuxin 4 ,
  • CHEN Yuexin 4 ,
  • YAO Cancan 1 ,
  • LI Wenhua , 3, *
  • 1. Tourism College of Beijing Union University, Beijing 100101, China
  • 2. Culture and Tourism Research Base of Beijing Union University, Beijing 100101, China
  • 3. Institute of Geographic Science and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • 4. College of Arts and Science of Beijing Union University, Beijing 100083, China
*LI Wenhua, E-mail:

SUN Yehong, E-mail:

Received date: 2021-01-15

  Accepted date: 2021-04-30

  Online published: 2021-09-30

Supported by

The National Natural Science Foundation of China(41971264)

The Graduate Research and Innovation Funding Project of Beijing Union University(YZ2020K001)

Premium Funding Project for Academic Human Resources Development in Beijing Union University(Baijie04)


Tourism is often considered as one of the dynamic conservation and adaptive management approaches in Agricultural Heritage Sites. It has been over 15 years since the GIAHS programme was initiated in China, and tourism developed quickly in the Agricultural Heritage Sites, to some extent because many researchers consider tourism as a significant engine of the local economy. However, this is contrary to the original intention of agricultural heritage tourism as it was proposed in the first place. Apparently, there are some overt problems during the tourism development process, which are mainly as follows: Some threats to Agricultural Heritage Systems are ubiquitous; The tourism development mode in Agricultural Heritage Sites is questionable; Community involvement is difficult to implement; And the negative environmental impacts are easy to overlook. Under the context of global development, the UNWTO sustainable tourism criteria provide some guidance for agricultural heritage tourism. Based on the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, combined with previous survey experiences and related researches, this paper analyzes the tourism sustainability of all the 15 GIAHS sites in China, and explores the current sustainable tourism development level. On this basis, an agricultural heritage sustainable tourism development framework was built in an attempt to find the road to sustainability for agricultural heritage tourism. The framework in the global and local contexts is trying to connect all the important elements related to agricultural heritage tourism according to the UNWTO sustainable tourism criteria.

Cite this article

SUN Yehong , SONG Yuxin , CHEN Yuexin , YAO Cancan , LI Wenhua . Sustainable or Not? Tourism Development in Agricultural Heritage Sites[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2021 , 12(4) : 543 -554 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2021.04.012

1 Introduction

It has been 15 years since the first GIAHS (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System) Rice-Fish Culture System in Qingtian, Zhejiang Province of China, was designated by FAO. With 15 GIAHS and 118 NIAHS (Nationally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems), China is walking along the path of conserving GIAHS steadily and setting some good examples of GIAHS conservation and sustainable utilization for the whole world, including in the field of tourism development. Tourism, as mentioned frequently in the literature, was considered as a two-edged sword, leading to many disputes over its role in heritage conservation (McKercher et al., 2005; Timothy, 2011; Sun et al., 2017; Su et al., 2020b). Since the 1980s, tourism in heritage sites has been the focus of researchers due to the crowds of tourists in different kinds of heritage sites. The number of tourists was considered as the indicator of popularity of the tourism products for a long time, and the pursuit of the tourists is still the goal for many heritage destinations, even though sustainable tourism has criticized this view for a long time. Such logic is not difficult to understand, as tourism is often considered as an engine of the local economy, and the number of tourists is one of the most important visualized outputs of the work in tourism destinations. During the process of the touristification of heritage resources, this orientation of focusing on tourist numbers and economic influence is the target of criticism from scholars and heritage protectionists. Critical theory shows many examples and the debate has never stopped (Mark,2004; Timothy and Nyaupane, 2009; Zhang et al., 2017; Min, 2018; Sun et al., 2019). However, the support for heritage tourism has been increasing because more and more people are witnessing tourism’s various contributions to heritage conservation, not only through its financial benefits but also by building partnerships to achieve mutually beneficial social and cultural outcomes (Donert and Light, 1996; Harrison,1997; Tang et al., 2010; Timothy, 2011; Farsani et al., 2019; Sun et al., 2019).
Tourism has grown naturally in AHSs (Agricultural Heritage Sites) since it began to get the attention, and was considered as one of the dynamic approaches for heritage conservation (Min and Sun, 2009; Sun, 2012; Sun et al., 2013). Conservation approaches lie in their characteristics, and the value is important not only in the past, but also in the present and whether it will continue in the future. Tourism has been recognized as an important strategy for the conservation and adaptive management of traditional Agricultural Heritage Systems. The positive impacts are due to its potential to improve public awareness for conservation, increase the economic value of traditional agriculture, and promote community livelihood sustainability (Yang et al., 2018; Su et al., 2019; Sun et al., 2019).Many studies were conducted to prove the role of tourism in different AHSs since its position in the dynamic conservation for Agricultural Heritage Systems was set. Some have proposed atheoretical framework of tourism development in AHSs, trying to find the logic and nexus of tourism and biodiversity conservation, and then cultural conservation (Min and Sun, 2009; Sun, 2012; He and Min, 2013; Pang et al., 2015; Su et al., 2019).
According to some researchers, agricultural heritage tourism and its potential linkages with community livelihoods were established based on the theory of sustainable livelihoods. Most studies proved the rationality of this proposition by neglecting some of the negative impacts which tourism brought to some extent. However, recent research shows that with the potential synergistic relationships between agricultural heritage and tourism, with implications for livelihood diversification, the connections between agricultural heritage resources and tourism experiences are very disconnected now. The intention of diversifying the rural livelihood to enhance human resources by bringing more young labors back to the fields has yet to be fulfilled (Yang et al.,2018;Su et al., 2020b). Some other challenges, such as the cultural and educational components of the system, need to be considered during the tourism development process.
With the initial intention of agricultural heritage tourism, tourism is supposed to play the most important role of identity building at the heritage site, with aside role of economic benefits, while it seems that the original goal has not been achieved yet. Since the GIAHS program originated from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework in 2002, and is still an important component of SDG 2030, tourism is inevitably considered as a sustainable track. This is because it complies with the conservation blueprint of GIAHS through its definition that sustainable tourism and the present needs must be met with a minimum of negative impacts on the environment and culture (FAO, 2002). Hence, this paper will examine the tourism development in AHSsall over the world and try to identify the problems of tourism development, with comparisons to the criteria of sustainable tourism, and then look to the future of tourism development orientation.

2 Tourism in AHSs and the related problems

2.1 Tourism development in AHSs

2.1.1 Worldwide agricultural tourism development

GIAHS sites designated by FAO have increased to 62 in 22 countries at present. On the whole, even though many AHSs have paid attention to tourism development, tourism is still in the early stage at AHSs. Many AHSs have shown high levels of interest in tourism and plenty of examples can be found in different countries.
Japan set some good examples of trying to attract domestic visitors, combined with the experience of rural tourism development. The local farmers of mountain and coastal rural landscapes in Kanazawa Noto Peninsula increased71% after the heritage designation in 2011, improving the labor force of tourism development (Tong et al.,2017). In Sado’sSatoyama of Japan, an activity named “Sado’s Hiking” was organized and tourists were allowed to closely view the crested Ibis birds and the related ecological environment, under the supervision of experts and management personnel of AHSs, so as to ensure that the tourists would not disturb the Crested Ibis and other wildlife (Lu and Wang,2016). In 2014, the Traditional Tea-grass Integrated System in Shizuoka was selected as a GIAHS, and then a series of activities such as tea garden eco-tours and tea garden eco-festivals were launched. The tourism map was designed to clearly indicate the factory, manor, tea bar and other places related to tea culture, which was welcomed by the tourists. Visitors can not only enjoy the ancient tea farming methods, but also put themselves into the cultivation activities of “tea pasture farming”. A tea museum was also set up in Shizuoka to show its long history of tea culture, popularize tea knowledge and conduct academic exchange activities (Tao and Zhang, 2017). Many other countries are considering tourism in AHSs as an economic engine. The Korean TraditionalGudeuljang Irrigated Rice Terraces in Cheongsando has 11 highway tourist routes for sightseeing, and through the self-guided tours, tourists can meet the local residents on the coastal roads and experience the local food and tradetional culture (Lim, 2015).At the Gil exhibition held in Jeju Island, the batdamAgricultural Heritage System of the GIASH of Jeju Island was displayed, and most of the tourists showed a strong interest in the local agricultural cultural heritage. They were invited to take field trips with researchers, and introduced to the changes of the crops in Jeju Island, the history of the rice and vegetable trade, etc. (Hiroyuki et al.,2018).The Qanat-based Saffron Farming System in Gonabad of Iran promoted tourism to cope with the threat of unemployment among the farmers, infertility of the soil and low yields. Tourists can not only enjoy the agricultural landscape (such as date palm trees, citrus orchards, terraces, etc.), but also obtain the knowledge and experience of the intangible agricultural cultural heritage (Farsani et al., 2019). The agricultural system of erwade oasis in Algeria vigorously developed eco-tourism, strengthening the production of jujube and increasing the opportunities to sell jujube and other fruits in different markets, which brought higher income to the residents, so as to attract and encourage young people to return from the city to the countryside (Bai et al., 2014). Specific traditional resources are the main attractions for tourists in the Masai grassland in Tanzania, where, local people built national parks and natural parks to attract tourists, set up cultural centers for tourists to experience the local culture, and also sold traditional handicrafts and decorations to tourists. In Tanzania, tourism has become an important alternative source of income for Masai (Kalavar et al., 2014).
European countries have paid plenty of attention to GIAHS in recent years and also to the related tourism. Chianti is one of the most famous rural tourism areas in Italy, and Lamole is the center of Chianti. In Lamole, the historical landscape is well preserved, and tourism is one of the main sources of income for local farmers. Local residents earn tourism income by providing accommodation and catering for tourists. According to the statistics of the National Bureau of Statistics, there were1286 beds (51.5% of the total) for tourists in the farmhouses in 2017, which were distributed in 81 farmhouses (Santoro et al., 2020).
In South America, tourism has also started to gain attention. In Chile’s Chilo Island, where the agricultural system is located, officials have set up new tourism routes, established rural travel agencies, vigorously promoted local tourism products, tourism services and cultural undertakings, made culture the driving force of local development, and encouraged cooperation among farmers, hotels and operators, so as to ensure the sustainable development and fairness of the tourism trade (Bai et al.,2014).

2.1.2 Agricultural heritage tourism in China

As one of the first countries to respond to the FAO GIAHS (Altieri and Koohafkan, 2007; Min and Sun, 2009; Min et al., 2011; Sun et al., 2019; Su et al., 2020a), China is leading the world in Agricultural Heritage System conservation and tourism development. With the initiative of China-NIAHS, 118 NIAHS were selected and named, distributedin29 provinces. Studies show that most of the GIAHS sites have developed tourism to varying extents, and some have attracted plenty of visitors with different kinds of tourism products. Some developed the rural tourism and pro-poor tourism, which provides different kinds of accommodations and souvenirs. The development efforts have reflected some regional differences, like tourism infrastructure, consumption patterns, degrees of government support and variations in the tourism products (Table 1). In eastern areas, tourism developed quickly but with more negative social and ecological impacts. In contrast, in the middle and western parts of the country, tourism has developed much slower, and its negative outcomes have been much less obvious than in the east (Sun et al.,2019).
Table 1 The GIAHS sites in China
No. System name Location Year of designation
1 Rice-Fish Culture System Qingtian County, Zhejiang Province 2005
2 Hani Rice Terraces System Yuanyang County, Honghe County, Lvchun County and Jinping County, Yunnan Province 2010
3 Traditional RiceCulture System Wannian County, Jiangxi Province 2010
4 Dong’s Rice-Fish-Duck System Congjiang County, Guizhou Province 2011
5 Dryland Farming System Aohan Banner, Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region 2012
6 Traditional Tea Agrosystem Pu’er City, Yunnan Province 2012
7 Urban Agricultural Heritage of Xuanhua Grape Gardens Xuanhua District, Zhangjiakou City, Hebei Province 2013
8 Kuaijishan Ancient Chinese Torreya Shaoxing City, Zhejiang Province 2013
9 Traditional Chinese Date Gardens Jiaxian County, Shannxi Province 2014
10 DuotianAgrosystem Xinghua County, Jiangsu Province 2014
11 Jasmine and Tea Culture System Fuzhou City, Fujian Province 2014
12 Zhagana Agriculture-Forestry-Animal Husbandry
Composite System
Diebu County, Gansu Province 2017
13 Mulberry-dyke and Fish-pond System Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province 2017
14 Yellow River Old Course Ancient Mulberry Grove
Xiajin County, Shandong Province 2018
15 Rice Terraces in Southern Mountainous and Hilly Areas Longsheng County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; ChongyiCounty, Jiangxi Province; YouxiCounty, Fujian Province; Xinhua County, Hunan Province 2018
With the development of China’s tourism, destinations have received much more attention ever since the “Whole Region Tourism Strategy” was proposed. Hence, agricultural heritage tourism was included in many places in China, even though some development modes are yet to be discussed. Cultural elements were emphasized in agricultural tourism with the formation of a special division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, at the national level. At the local level, one focus has been on the relationship between culture and agriculture, which is good for agricultural tourism and the related tour products. The nationwide advocacy of tourism has two opposing influences. On one hand, it promotes the development of tourism; but on the other hand, it also brings many problems in the development.

2.2 Problems in the agricultural heritage tourism process

Negative impacts were inevitable at AHSs, and different development stages were characterized with different negative impacts according to tourism life cycle theory (Butler, 1980). Heritage tourism destinations are easily criticized, as the high value of heritage and the resulting development orientation is obviously different from those of the ordinary destinations. For problems like over-tourism, commercialization, the price of daily life, etc., numerous cases have provided evidence all over the world (Zhang et al., 2017; Yang et al., 2018; Su et al., 2020a;Su et al., 2020b). Agricultural heritage tourism was developed along with many problems.

2.2.1 Some threats to Agricultural Heritage Systems are ubiquitous

It is a fact that many people can be attracted by a large cultural symbol, and the Agricultural Heritage System is one of those newly recognized cultural symbols. No matter what intention the policy makers have for maintaining the thriving tourism in the AHSs, it would bring the positive and also the negative impacts, just like tourism in any other heritage sites. The differences lie in the features of the Agricultural Heritage System itself, especially in the threats that the Agricultural Heritage System faces, which show a kind of universality and uniqueness. Obviously, some threats have not been given enough attention, while others have been misunderstood.
The neglect of the multi-functionality of traditional knowledge and techniques is everywhere, leading to the difficulties of traditional agricultural system inheritance in the fast-growing modern society. The shallow understanding of traditional agricultural intelligence has also originated from the weakening of the multi-functionality of the Agricultural Heritage System, which leads to an inappropriate tourism development direction and product development. With the deepening of people’s recognition of a healthy life and a safe future, the conversation of the functional diversity is getting easier among different interest groups, while the pressure of development and other driving strengths are still hindrances of the conservation policy and sustainable use approaches.
Some threats, like the outflow of rural labor and especially the young adults, bring lots of anxiety for the local heritage managers, and many researchers have mentioned the potential crisis this would bring to Agricultural Heritage System conservation (Min and Sun, 2009; Jiao and Min, 2017; Zhang et al., 2017; Min, 2018; Su et al., 2018; Su et al., 2020b). Recent research shows that the labor force is not actually a deadly threat for Agricultural Heritage Systems, since the farming time of the local farmer is flexible and the out-of-work farmers can still be engaged in the farming system during the critical periods of the farming process. This means the phenomenon of labor absence is periodic and the availability of multiple livelihood sources has enriched the farmer’s life without damaging the root of farming production itself. Tourism research has shown an interesting finding, that almost all farmers are using less than 10% of their time on the farming systems in the Rice-Fish system, Zhejiang Province, and the Hani Rice Terrace System, Yunnan Province, whether they are involved in tourism or not, and no matter how deeply involved they are (Wu et al.,2020). This fact indicates that tourism as an alternative livelihood approach would not have negative impacts on the time distribution, at least at the early stage of a heritage site like in Zhejiang and Yunnan, which were just designated on the FAO agricultural heritage list over approximately the past 10 years.
In fact, a threat ignored for a longtime is the educational system in rural areas. The young labor force’s long term residence in the heritage site, where the education system was very backward, cannot support the children’ school education in the agricultural sites. The long-time residence in the heritage site has not received the appropriate attention as the significance of the connection of the place with the people was ignored. Tourists are not supposed to be able to distinguish the service provided by a resident and an outsider, while the research shows a big difference between the local service and the industry service (Thetsane, 2019).

2.2.2 The tourism development mode in agricultural heritage sites is questionable

With regard to agricultural heritage tourism, more and more researchers are focusing on the mode of development (Sun et al., 2010;He and Min, 2013; Wang and Chen, 2017). The increasing number of tourists draws a blueprint at the destination which fulfills the needs of local managers and administrators, while the “number code” has failed to match the future expectation in an increasing number of cases of heritage sites.
It is not very easy to fully understand the relationship between the scenic spot mode and the whole region tourism mode, in that the latter was supposed to revolve around the unique orientation of scenic spots. The enthusiasm for scenic spots was embedded in the blood of tourism managers of the destinations, encouraged by the present national 5A grade scenic selections. Obviously, the willingness of national policy-making was distorted, and scenic spots were elevated too drastically at the local level. The direct consequence is that the enthusiasm for the spots never disappears, in contrast to the original dream as interpreted by the appeal of the destination.
In many AHSs, tourism was included in the rural background and considered as a small element within the whole region tourism development, which sounds like it would be no problem while the attraction emphasis is changing. With the intention of the attraction using some superficial agricultural elements, agricultural heritage tourism has missed its potential, which can only be found in the academic articles and constructed theories. Its driving strength was not only from the local government achievements, but its aesthetic appeal was not very well developed in the public view. In other words, as a way of simple, direct assessment, and without truly understanding the problems brought by agricultural heritage tourism, the identity building, the regional pride, the way of traditional intelligence lasting to the future, etc., only the “numbers and brands” are visible.

2.2.3 Community involvement is difficult to implement

Some obvious problems, like the linkage of enterprises and local communities, seem like clichés but it is the most significant issue to cope with, at present and in the future. It is a challenge that the whole world is facing, since agriculture heritage system conservation is community-based and locally-centered, which requires the attention first at the local level, to be deeply involved in the development, and not just on the surface. Most studies on this issue have pointed out that the power relations among stakeholders are imbalanced, with the interests of locals much lower than those of the others like enterprises and governments (Shi and Sun,2016; Sun et al., 2019), while the weak engagement in practice (compared with the abundance of research outcomes) brings more disappointment when the community power was considered to be enhanced. As a result, many Agricultural Heritage Systems were included in theme parks, as tourists are assumed to enjoy the mode of experiencing agriculture through the artificially designed field play and tourists are supposed to get more satisfaction when some on-site farming experience activities are organized in a short time with a high intensity.
It is almost impossible when the policies related to tourism are used to talk about the empowerment of the local people. The top-down model is very useful when combined with the bottom-up, and the logic is so clear that few will be able to deny it, while under the situation of Chinese rural history and institutional customs, community is a new entity compared with the western style of power expression. The willingness to empower the locals and trying to find the best way of involvement was studied all over China and its attempt in Agricultural Heritage Sites has also been discussed theoretically (Li, 2015; Shi and Sun,2017). Scholars are trying to find the influential factors that hinder community involvement and whether this is the main obstacle to heritage conservation and tourist satisfaction (Shi and Sun, 2016; Su et al., 2018; Su et al., 2020b), and it turns out to be not very effective in practice.

2.2.4 The environmental negative impacts are easily overlooked

Environmental conflicts during tourism development have been researched for a long time (Lee and Jan, 2015; Min, 2018), while in fact they tend to be overlooked when it comes to the tourism development process. More attention has been paid to natural heritage sites and the biodiversity reserves (Lei et al., 2013; Su et al., 2016; Ren et al., 2018; Ding et al., 2019), especially as it relates to the habitats of endangered species(Smith et al., 2011). Agricultural Heritage Systems are vulnerable to external interference, thus causing damage to the agricultural environment. For example, improper use of water resources will lead to the exhaustion of terrace water and influence the sustainability of the terraces. In some terrace areas, excessive tourism infrastructures, such as hotels and restaurants, were built which use too much water, so they should receive more attention otherwise the terrace will no longer remain.

3 Sustainable tourism development in heritage sites

3.1 Sustainable tourism development and global criteria

Sustainable tourism is the embodiment of the concept of sustainable development in tourism, and it is also the guiding ideology of the industry. A conference on sustainable development was held in Canada in 1990, which pointed out the concept of sustainable tourism for the first time in a section entitled “sustainable tourism development strategy”. It proposed that “sustainable tourism should not only meet the needs of tourists and tourist community, it also needs to safeguard and enhance the future development opportunities. Thus, we must pay attention to fairness in the development of tourism industry, biological diversity and cultural integrity, and try to meet the needs of people on economic, social and aesthetic levels”(Tang et al. 2013).
Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) formulated the “Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria for Destinations” (GSTC-D). The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria are an effort to come to a common understanding of sustainable destinations, and are the minimum undertakings that any tourism management organization which wishes to be sustainable should aspire to achieve. To satisfy the definition of sustainable tourism, destinations must take an interdisciplinary, holistic and integrative approach which includes four main objectives: 1) Demonstrate sustainable destination management; 2) Maximize social and economic benefits for the host community and minimize negative impacts; 3) Maximize benefits to communities, visitors and cultural heritage, and minimize impacts; and 4) Maximize benefits to the environment and minimize negative impacts. In addition to the above four dimensions, the system also covers 41 specific indicators. The same criteria are designed to be used by all types and scales of destinations ( Table 2).
Table 2 Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria for Destinations (GSTC-D)
Index Criteria
A/Demonstrate sustainable destination
A1-Sustainable destination strategy, A2-Destination management organization, A3-Monitoring, A4-Toursim seasonality management, A5-Cliamte change adaptation, A6-Inventory of tourism assets and attractions, A7-Planning regulations, A8-Access for all, A9-Property acquisitions, A10-Visitor satisfaction, A11-Sustainability standards, A12-Safety and security, A13-Crisis and emergency
management, A14-Promotion
B/Maximize economic benefits to the host community and minimize negative impacts B1-Economic monitoring, B2-Local career opportunities, B3-Public participation, B4-Local community opinion, B5-Local access, B6-Tourism awareness and education, B7-Preventing exploitation, B8-Support for community, B9-Supporting local entrepreneurs and fair trade
C/Maximize benefits to communities, visitors, and culture; minimize negative impacts C1-Attraction protection, C2-Visitor management, C3-Visitor behavior, C4-Cultural heritage
protection, C5-Site interpretation, C6-Intellectural property
D/Maximize benefits to the environment and minimize negative impacts D1-Environmental risks, D2-Protection of sensitive environments, D3-Wildlife protection, D4-Greenhouse gas emissions, D5-Energy conservation, D6-Water management, D7-Water security, D8-Water quality, D9-Wastewater, D10-Solid waste reduction, D11-Light and noise pollution, D12- Low-impact transportation

3.2 Sustainable tourism development in the GIAHS of China

The concept of sustainable tourism is always used at Agricultural Heritage Sites since it complies with the conservation blueprint of GIAHS by defining sustainable tourism as preserving the environment while allowing for cultural, economic, social, and political development (FAO, 2002; Sun et al., 2019). Hence, a qualitative evaluation of the sustainable tourism elements of 15 important global agricultural systems in China was made one by one in this study. The main purpose is to distinguish whether they are compatible with the GSTC. A score method was not used, as the main purpose of this study was to find out only whether the 15 GIAHS are sustainable based on tourism development criteria, while no attempt was made to compare the relative degrees of the sustainability.
The result clearly shows the advantages and disadvantages of agricultural heritage tourism in China (Table 3, Fig. 1). From an evaluation based on previous field investigations and related literature research, the following aspects are quite weak in the level of sustainable tourism: tourist satisfaction monitoring(A10), sustainable development standardization level improvement(A11), local community public opinion(B4), tourism awareness publicity and education(B6), tourist management(C2), tourist behavior guide(C3), greenhouse gas emission reduction(D4), energySaving(D5), water resources management(D6), and the negative impact of transportation system reduction(D12). On the contrary, some items are better: destination sustainable development strategy(A1), destination management organization(A2), planning and regulation system(A7), ownership acquisition and protection(A9), safety and security system(A12), crisis prevention and emergency management(A13), economic benefit monitoring(B1), localresidents’ access andaccess rights(B5), anti-exploitation(B7), fragile environmental protection(D2), and noise and light pollution control(D11).These results show that the 15 GLAHS sites in China have paid more attention to the above sustainable tourism indicators and have achieved good results.
Fig. 1 The status of sustainable tourism development of Agricultural Heritage Sites from the perspective of sustainable tourism development indicators
Among the individual cases of Agricultural Heritage Systems, some of them are reflected better while others are worse. The reason for this difference relates to whether local residents agree with the value of the Agricultural Heritage Sites, and whether the local government actively promotes the conservation of this area. Some good examples are the Rice-Fish Culture System (No. 1 in Fig. 2), Hani Rice Terraces System (No. 2 in Fig. 2), Traditional Tea Agro system (No. 5 in Fig. 2), Dryland Farming System (No. 6 in Fig. 2), and Mulberry-dyke and Fish-pond System (No. 13 in Fig. 2). These areas tend to pay more attention to the conservation of the Agricultural Heritage Sites, and the residents’ participation in tourism development is also higher. The weaker examples include the Urban Agricultural Heritage ofXuanhua Grape Gardens (No. 7 inFig. 2), JiaxianTraditional Chinese Date Gardens (No. 9 in Fig. 2), DiebuZhaganaAgriculture-Forestry-Animal Husbandry Composite System (No. 12 in Fig. 2), and Rice Terraces in Southern Mountainous and Hilly areas (No. 15 in Fig. 2). In these Agricultural Heritage Sites, more attention is paid to the short-term economic benefits brought by tourism activities, while the multi-faceted value of the site is ignored, resulting in their weak sustainability.
Fig. 2 The sustainable tourism development of Agricultural Heritage Sites from the perspective of sustainable tourism

development indicators Note: 1-15 are the GIAHS as Table 1 show.

3.3 Road to sustainable tourism in agricultural heritage sites: Aframework

Obviously, the indicators of sustainable tourism destinations are basically consistent with the tourism development of AHSs, mainly reflecting that the problems lie in the community involvement, benefit sharing, tourist management, environment and resource management, etc. Hence a sustainable approach to the tourism development framework was designed according to the sustainable tourism evaluation (Fig.3). Under the contexts of global and local interactions, various elements are interrelated and influence each other, and they jointly affect the sustainable tourism development of Agricultural Heritage Sites.
Fig. 3 Agricultural heritage sustainable tourism development framework

3.3.1 Global and local nexus

The sustainable tourism criteria were developed at the global level, which shows the common understanding and knowledge of sustainable tourism development. Meanwhile, local cases provide the experience and approaches during the practical management process of tourism. Apparently, the global criteria and local approaches are connected andthe interactions would bring new understanding regarding sustainable tourism. GIAHS was intended to build the dynamic conservation and adaptive management mechanism in a bottom-up approach. It turned out, however, that the bottom-up approach was very hard to implement in China due to the customary and traditional understanding of diplomatic management. The traditional top-down approach is not conducive to mobilizing the enthusiasm of communityresidents. Therefore, a combination of the top-downapproachwith Chinese characteristics and the bottom-up approach advocated internationally plays an important role in the protection and management of Agricultural Heritage Systems in China. This is a good example of the combination of global and local experiences. The combination of global experience and local experience can also avoid prejudice, respect local traditions and apply local experience in a global standard environment, which would produce new understandings of the tourism development in Agricultural Heritage Sites.
Table 3 Evaluation table of sustainable tourism development of globally important Agricultural Heritage Systems in China
Index A/Demonstrate sustainable destination management B/Maximize economic benefits to the host community and minimize negative impacts C/Maximize benefits to communities,
visitors, and culture; minimize negative impacts
D/Maximize benefits to the environment and minimize negative impacts
Case A1 A2 A3 A4 A5 A6 A7 A8 A9 A10 A11 A12 A13 A14 B1 B2 B3 B4 B5 B6 B7 B8 B9 C1 C2 C3 C4 C5 C6 D1 D2 D3 D4 D5 D6 D7 D8 D9 D

Note:Cases: 1-Rice-Fish Culture System, Qingtian County, Zhejiang Province; 2-Hani Rice Terraces System, Yuanyang County, Honghe County, Lvchun County and Jinping County, Yunnan Province; 3-Traditional Rice Culture System, Wannian County, Jiangxi Province; 4-Dong’s Rice-Fish-Duck System, Congjiang County, Guizhou Province; 5-Traditional Tea Agrosystem, Pu’er City, Yunnan Province; 6-Dryland Farming System, AohanBanner, Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region; 7-Urban Agricultural Heritage of Xuanhua Grape Gardens, Xuanhua District, Zhangjiakou City, Hebei Province; 8-Kuaijishan Ancient Chinese Torreya, Shaoxing City, Zhejiang Province; 9-Tradional Chinese Date Gardens, Jiaxian County, Shannxi Province; 10-Jasmine and Tea Culture System, Fuzhou City, Fujian Province; 11-Duotian Agrosystem, Xinghua County, Jiangsu Province; 12-Zhagana Agriculture-Forestry-Animal Husbandry Composite System, Diebu County, Gansu Province; 13-Mulberry-dyke and Fish-pond System, Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province; 14-Yellow River Old Course Ancient Mulberry Grove System, Xiajin County, Shandong Province; 15-Rice Terraces in Southern Mountainous and Hilly areas,Longsheng County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, ChongyiCounty, Jiangxi Province,YouxiCounty, Fujian Province, Xinhua County, Hunan Province.

3.3.2 GIAHS sustainable tourism elements

According to the GSTC-D, many elements of the AHSs are very important, which is consistent with the previous case analysis of AHSs in China. Even in other countries, where there are indications that the formulation of global standards also combines the experiences of many places for AHS, several factors are particularly important, which fundamentally determine whether their tourism is sustainable. These factors are community participation, tourist management, resource utilization, environmental and ecological conservation, risk management, multi-stakeholder coordination, planning, and product design. Many studies have emphasized the community participation issues in AHSs, and this is also one of the main problems in most heritage sites, especially in some developing countries, like China. Empowerment is advocated while the results are not very good. Community participation is closely related to multi-stakeholder coordination. At present, the main contradiction is that the power of the Chinese community is relatively weak, while the strength of the government and enterprises is relatively strong. Therefore, determining how to improve the ability and effect of community participation needs to be a major focus. Tourist management is closely connected with community, product design and environment conservation. The education- and research-orientated tourism products were supposed to better involve the community and help in the environment conservation, as the carrying capacity would be one of the core elements of tourist management, and mass tourism would be difficult to control by the numbers. On the other hand, the education-and research-oriented tourism would try to promote the protection of agricultural heritage, excavate the connotation of agricultural heritage and transform the recessive heritage symbols into explicit tourism products. Basically, those tasks cannot be done without the involvement of the local community. A good planning strategy at the heritage sites would do well for the conservation and the management of the heritage sites, and emphasize the risk management and resource utilization, which is pretty significant in modern society. It is easy to understand that all those elements are connected and cannot be eliminated from agricultural heritage sustainable tourism development.

4 Discussion

Tourism development of agricultural heritage sites in China is almost the same as that in other countries. Nowadays, agricultural heritage sites around the world have carried out tourism activities as a dynamic conservation approach for the development of the heritage sites, and agricultural heritage tourism is being vigorously developed. Most tourism forms can be seen in the Agricultural Heritage Sites, such as agricultural activity experiences, agricultural cultural festivals, agricultural museums, intangible heritage and tangible heritage souvenir production, etc. However, the tourism projects developed at present cannot play a fundamental role, as they only bring short-term economic benefits. Therefore, the problems facing each heritage site are almost the same, like the agricultural population decline, labor shortages, lack of willingness of the young people to inherit agricultural culture and technology, the use of more economically valuable varieties instead of traditional varieties, etc. All these problems have an adverse impact on the inheritance and conservation of Agricultural Heritage Sites. Obviously, one good step is to develop educational tourism in heritage sites, which can not only achieve the purpose of educating tourists, but also increase the residents’ identity as heritage protectors and inheritors, realizing the sustainable development of agricultural heritage tourism.
As an ancient agricultural country, Agricultural Heritage Sites are our country’s precious wealth. Once it disappears, it cannot be regenerated. Therefore, it is necessary to establish the principle of “protection as the center and development as the means” in policy protection, implement dynamic protection, and promote the economic and social development of agricultural heritage communities. Second, the rural revitalization strategy should be combined with research on agricultural heritage sites. Most of the Agricultural Heritage Sites are located in remote and impoverished areas in China, which face many problems, such as outdated infrastructure, poor transportation access, and a single tourism development model. Relying on the rural revitalization strategy will add momentum to the development of the Agricultural Heritage System. Finally, an incentive mechanism should be established in the agricultural heritage community, and substantial support and subsidies should be invested to increase the enthusiasm of local residents and enterprises to participate, ultimately achieving sustainable tourism in Agricultural Heritage Sites.
Sustainable tourism started to draw the attention in the1980s and many important events have witnessed the significance of this concept, e.g., the formulation of the Sustainable Tourism Development Charter, the establishment of Journal of Sustainable Tourism, the issue of Agenda 21 on Tourism, etc. Sustainable tourism is the result of people’s recognition of the development of tourism after tourism has developed to a certain stage. It is established against the background of the principle of sustainable development put forward by the international community. Sustainable tourism is the concrete practice of sustainable development theory in the tourism industry. Compared with the concept of mass tourism, sustainable tourism emphasizes the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature in the process of tourism. Environmental protection and ecological conservation began to enter the scope of tourist activities and the tourism industry.
According to UNWTO, sustainable tourism needs to be measured and credibly demonstrated in order to build consumer confidence, promote business prosperity, foster community benefits, and fight false claims. In the academic arena, many models have tried to explain the elements which relate to the sustainable tourism system, and The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria(GSTC) are an effort to come to a common understanding of sustainable destinations, which are the minimum undertakings to achieve. This was proposed in the Sustainable Tourism Development Charter, which forms the goal of sustainable tourism development, including 18 rules and six action plans. The criteria and indicators were developed based on previously recognized criteria and approaches, includingthe UNWTO destination level indicators, GSTC Criteria for Hotels and Tour Operators, and other widely accepted principles and guidelines, certification criteria and indicators. Despite some disputes in academic circles, the criteria were used to analyze the sustainable tourism development in Agricultural Heritage Sites due to its wide recognition. In the agricultural heritage sustainable tourism development framework, it is the reference for the international analysis standard, compared with the local case study.
Normally, an ideal framework is not easy to build let alone overcoming the limitations of searching for evidence of proof. The agricultural heritage sustainable tourism development framework in the global and local contexts is trying to connect all the important elements related to agricultural heritage tourism according to the UNWTO GSTC Criteria of sustainable tourism. The score was based on the judgments of the case study in order to identify the items which influence the sustainable tourism of agricultural heritage tourism, without considering the degree of the sustainability, and the comparison was based on the implementation of the expert score method. The problems are identified, while figuring out how the problems could be solved needs more global and local intelligence and experience, which needs more efforts in the combination of the Top-down and Bottom-up approaches. Apparently, there is a long way to go.
There are various types of Agricultural Heritage Sites, and each has its own characteristics. Therefore, the agricultural heritage sustainable tourism development framework also needs to be adapted to local conditions. Although this research has established an agricultural heritage sustainable tourism framework based on the global sustainable tourism destination standards, this framework can only be used as a standard framework. Practical applications should also be carried out in the future sustainable tourism research of each heritage site, taking into account local regulatory systems and environmental, social, economic, and cultural factors, and combining that site’s particular characteristics to change or delete framework indicators. In addition, the establishment of the framework for Agricultural Heritage Sites can also provide certain selection ideas for future research on the community resilience index system of Agricultural Heritage Sites.

5 Conclusions

This paper examines tourism development in Agricultural Heritage Sites all over the world. It turns out the main problems of agricultural heritage tourism development lie in several aspects, including ubiquitous threats, a questionable tourism development mode, community involvement is difficult to implement and the negative environmental impacts are easy to overlook. Based on these problems, combined with the criteria of sustainable tourism, an agricultural heritage sustainable tourism development framework was built to show the way to sustainable development of agricultural heritage tourism in both the global and local contexts, in order to provide a new method and idea for the sustainable development of agricultural heritage tourism in the future. The global context provides the international standards for sustainable tourism, while integrating the local experience with global criteria can form the effective regulations for the sustainable tourism development. All of the key elements, like community participation, and tourist management are connected and interacted, so theycould not be separated during the tourism process of the Agricultural Heritage Sites.
Altieri M A, Koohafkan P. 2007. Globally Important Ingenious Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS): Extent, significance, and implications for development. Berkeley,USA:FAO.

Bai Y Y, Min Q W, Liu M C. 2014. Foreign successful experiences and suggestions to China’s GIAHS conservation and management. World Agriculture, 35(6):78-82, 227. (in Chinese)

Farsani N T, Ghotbabadi S S, Altafi M. 2019. Agricultural heritage as a creative tourism attraction. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, 24(6):541-549.


Harrison J. 1997. Museums and touristic expectations. Annals of Tourism Research, 24(1):23-40.


He L, Min Q W. 2013. The role of multi-functionality of agriculture in sustainable tourism development in Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) sites in China. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 4(3):250-257.


Hiroyuki K, Su Z, Wonhee Y, et al. 2018. Concerns and opportunities around cultural heritage in East Asian Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). Sustainability, 10(4):1235.DOI: 10.3390/su10041235.


Jiao W J, Min Q W. 2017. Reviewing the progress in the identification, conservation and management of China-Nationally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (China-NIAHS). Sustainability, 9(10):1698. DOI: 10.3390/su9101698.


Kalavar J M, Buzinde C N, Melubo K, et al. 2014. Intergenerational differences in perceptions of heritage tourism among the Maasai of Tanzania. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 29(1):53-67.


Lee T H, Jan F H. 2015. The influence of recreation experience and environmental attitude on the environmentally responsible behavior of community-based tourists in Taiwan. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 23(7):1063-1094.


Lei Q Y, Zhang W H, Sun J, et al. 2013. Traditional management and utilization of glutinous rice genetic resources in southeast Guizhou. Plant Diversity and Resources, 35(2):195-201. (in Chinese)

Lim K. 2015. A study on agriculture tourism of GudeuljangnonTerraced Rice Paddies and JejuBatdamAgricultural System. Journal of the Association of Korean Photo-Geographers, 25(2):37-49.


Lu Y, Wang S M. 2016. Introduction and reconstruction: Experience and enlightenment from the Japanese GIAHS“SadoIsland Ibis-Paddy Symbiotic System”. Journal of Yunnan Normal University ( Humanities and Social Sciences) , 48(2):132-138. (in Chinese)

Mark P. 2004. Heritage, local communities and economic development. Annals of Tourism Research, 32(3):735-759.


McKercher B, Ho P S Y, Cros H D. 2005. Relationship between tourism and cultural heritage management: Evidence from Hong Kong. Tourism Management, 26(4):539-548.


Min Q W, He L, Zhang D. 2011. Agricultural Heritageresearch in China: Progresses and perspectives. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2(1):15-21.

Min Q W, Sun Y H. 2009. The concept, characteristics and conservation requirements of Agricultural Heritage. Resources Science, 31(6):914-918. (in Chinese)

Min Q W. 2018. Six types of relations that should be managed in agricultural heritage tourism development. World Heritages, 62(Z1):38. (in Chinese)

Pang S M, Sun Y H, Wei Y J, et al. 2015. The economic analysis on dynamic conservation approaches of Agricultural Heritage Systems: Taking Hani Rice Terraces as a case. World Agriculture, (11):101-106,255-256.

Ren W Z, Hu LL, Guo L, et al. 2018. Preservation of the genetic diversity of a local common carp in the Agricultural Heritage Rice-Fish System. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 115(3):E546-E554.

Santoro A, Venturi M, Agnoletti M. 2020. Agricultural Heritage Systems and landscape perception among tourists: The case of Lamole, Chianti (Italy). Sustainability, 12(9):3509. DOI: 10.3390/su12093509.


Shi S H, Sun Y H. 2016. Research on interests coordination in the tourism development of the World Heritage Site from the perspective of social network analysis: Taking Hani Rice Terraces in Yunnan as an example. Tourism Tribune, 31(7):52-64. (in Chinese)

Shi S H, Sun Y H. 2017. Research on the benefit network governance of tourism development in heritage site-based on index random graph model and case study of Hani Terraces field in Yunnan Province. Economic Management Journal, 32(4):147-162. (in Chinese)

Smith R K, Ryan E, Morley E, et al. 2011. Resolving management conflicts: Could agricultural land provide the answer for an endangered species in a habitat classified as a World Heritage Site? Environmental Conservation, 38(3):325-333.


Su M M, Dong Y Z, Wall G, et al. 2020a. A value-based analysis of the tourism use of Agricultural Heritage Systems: DuotianAgro-system, Jiangsu Province, China. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 28(12):2136-2155.


Su M M, Sun Y H, Min QW, et al. 2018. A community livelihood approach to Agricultural Heritage System conservation and tourism development: XuanhuaGrape Garden Urban Agricultural Heritage Site, Hebei Province of China. Sustainability, 10(2):361. DOI: 10.3390/su10020361.


Su M M, Wall G, Wang Y N, et al. 2019. Livelihood sustainability in a rural tourism destination—Hetu Town, Anhui Province, China. Tourism Management, 71:272-281.


Su M M, Wall G, Xu K J. 2016. Heritage tourism and livelihood sustainability of a resettled rural community:MountSanqingshan World Heritage site, China. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 24(5):735-757.


Su M M, Sun Y H, Wall G, et al. 2020b. Agricultural heritage conservation, tourism and community livelihood in the process of urbanization—Xuanhua Grape Garden, Hebei Province, China. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, 25(3):205-222.


Sun Y H, Dela Cruz M J, Min Q W, et al. 2013. Conserving Agricultural Heritage Systems through tourism: Exploration of two mountainous communities in China. Journal of Mountain Science, 10(6):962-975.


Sun Y H, Timothy D J, Wang Y, et al. 2019. Reflections on Agricultural Heritage Systems and tourism in China. Journal of China Tourism Research, 15(3):359-378.


Sun Y H, Cheng S K, Zhong L S, et al. 2010. Assessment on tourism resources potential for Agricultural Heritage Sites: A case study on Qingtian County in Zhejiang Province. Resources Science, 32(6):1026-1034. (in Chinese)

Sun Y H, Zhou H J, Wall G, et al. 2017. Cognition of disaster risk in a tourism community: An Agricultural Heritage System perspective. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25(4):536-553.


Sun Y H. 2012. Research review on Agricultural Heritage Systems and its tourism development. Journal of Landscape Research, 4(6):54-58.

Tang X Y, Min Q W, Wu Z J. 2010. An investigation of residents’ perception on tourism in Agro-cultural Heritage community: A case study on Ping’an Village of Guilin City, Guangxi. Resource Sciences, 32(6):1035-1041. (in Chinese)

Tang C C, Zhong L S, Cheng S K. 2013. A review on sustainable development for tourist destination. Progress in Geography, 32(6):984-992. (in Chinese)

Tao Y H, Zhang J. 2017. Development and enlightenment of tea culture ecological tourism resources in Shizuoka, Japan. World Agriculture, 11(2):44-47. (in Chinese)

ThetsaneR M. 2019. Local community participation in tourism development: The case of Katse Villages in Lesotho. Athens Journal of Tourism, 6(2):123-140.


Timothy D J. 2011. Cultural heritage and tourism: An introduction. Bristol, UK: Channel View Publications.

Timothy D J, Nyaupane G. 2009. Cultural heritage and tourism in the developing world: A regional perspective. London, UK: Routledge.

Tong Y E, Xong Z, Hong Z J, et al. 2017. Comparison and thinking on the conservation of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems between China and Japan. World Agriculture, 11(5):13-18, 215. (in Chinese)

Wang Y Z, Chen W Q. 2017. Researchon the relationship between the conservation of Agricultural Cultural Heritage and the development of tourism in Zhakana. World Agriculture, 11(10):175-181. (in Chinese)

Wu W J, Sun Y H, Wang Y. 2020. Research on the emotional response of female residents’ tourism participation in Agricultural Heritage Sites—A case study of Rice-Fish Culture System. Tourism Tribune, 40(1):138-141. (in Chinese)

Yang L, Liu M C, Min Q W, et al. 2018. Specialization or diversification?The situation and transition of households’ livelihood in Agricultural Heritage Systems. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 16(6):455-471.


Zhang C Q, Min Q W, Tian M. 2017. Analysis of farmers perceptions on agricultural heritage conservation and development—Case study of Yunnan Honghe Terraces. Journal of Nanjing Agricultural University ( Social Sciences) , 17(1):134-141, 154. (in Chinese)