Resident Willingness to Pay for Ecotourism Resources and Associated Factors in Sanjiangyuan National Park, China

  • MA Ting , 1, 2, 3, 4 ,
  • MIN Qingwen 2, 3 ,
  • XU Kun 5 ,
  • SANG Weiguo , 1, *
  • 1. College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Minzu University of China, Beijing 100081, China
  • 2. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • 3. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • 4. Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2H1, Canada
  • 5. Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2H1, Canada
*SANG Weiguo, E-mail:

MA Ting, E-mail:

Received date: 2020-12-04

  Accepted date: 2021-02-25

  Online published: 2021-11-22

Supported by

The National Key Research and Development Program(2017YFC0506501)

The Program for Ecological Innovation Team in Minzu University of China(2020CXTD02)


Willingness to Pay (WTP), Willingness to Work (WTW) and Willingness to Accept Compensation (WTA) are the three quantitative criteria for assessing local ecological asset values for the social aspects of ecosystem services and residents’ willingness to contribute to and receive compensation for tourism ecology. The objectives of this study are to estimate the residents’ willingness to pay, work and accept compensation for conservation at Sanjiangyuan National Park, and to analyze the relationship between residents’ attitude towards tourism ecology and the ecological assets of the National Park based on a standard questionnaire survey. The dichotomous choice Contingent Valuation Method (CVM) was employed to determine the willingness. The survey conducted in 2018 collected WTP, WTW, WTA, socio-demFographical information, social trust and resident perceptions toward tourism impacts and relevant management strategies from 244 residents in two counties. Based on generalized linear modeling, income and education level are important for residents’ WTP and WTA, but other social characteristics, such as gender and age, do not have significant effects. The social trust is found to be a significant factor on residents’ willingness, despite the limitation on education level. Also, government funding is associated with residents’ inclination to WTP, WTW and WTA, but the support levels differ among the two counties due to geographical and social heterogeneities. The estimated WTP, WTW and WTA for the Sanjiangyuan National Park in 2018 were 1.2448×10 7 yuan, 1.247×10 6 hours and 2.3232×10 7 yuan yr -1 based on the survey and published demographics. This study, for the first time, estimates the WTP, WTW and WTA for the Sanjiangyuan National Park and informs ecological conservation managers and policy makers. Ultimately, to maintain the long-term benefits arising from sustainable development, compensation should be specifically tailored and site-dependent, and development measures based on local resources should be adopted by governments to actively support eco-tourism activities.

Cite this article

MA Ting , MIN Qingwen , XU Kun , SANG Weiguo . Resident Willingness to Pay for Ecotourism Resources and Associated Factors in Sanjiangyuan National Park, China[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2021 , 12(5) : 693 -706 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2021.05.012

1 Introduction

The concept of the environmentally sustainable economy has been widely accepted by urban residents in China (Geng and Doberstein, 2008). The essence of such a development pattern is that environmental protection is inseparable from the social and economic development paths; so, any change in the environment may directly affect the economy. In other words, there are always consequences on the natural and artificial environments otherwise no economic decisions will be made; in return, no environmental changes will occur without affecting the economy (Dehghani et al., 2010). A balance between economic development and environmental conservation has been the on-going need for a sustainable economy where economic evaluation plays an active role in the formulation and evaluation of environmental policies. On the other hand, environmental systems provide material and empirical benefits that directly promote human well-being as a type of ecosystem service, and it is meaningful and important to quantify these benefits following the international academic standard protocols.
Natural resource and ecosystem service assessment is important for providing policy makers with a concise overview of environmental problems, estimating the quantitative outcomes of economic policy and environment, and adjusting the accounting of national economic figures, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Costanza et al., 1997; Turnhout et al., 2014; Azimy et al., 2020; Krikser et al., 2020). Among all the ecosystem service providers, the national parks can best benefit human beings, society and, more importantly, the environmental and ecological sustainability, which are highly related to available ecological services, such as recreational ecotourism resources for visitors. As ecotourism sites, national parks boost the national and local economies in a sustainable way (Palomo et al., 2013). On one hand, national parks are becoming increasingly popular destinations for entertainment in many countries including China (Tisdell, 1996; Suntikul et al., 2010). On the other hand, the challenge for managing national parks lies in achieving a long-term sustainable plan, namely, the protection of landscapes and natural resources with extended coverage of historical relics and wildlife therein (Dai, 2018). For example, the Sanjiangyuan National Park, as a popular ecotourism choice for the famous Three Rivers (Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers) scenery, brings both opportunities to introduce tourism economic benefits to local people and governments as well as challenges from the negative impacts on the natural environment and residents’ support for ecological conservation due to the increasing volume of visitors (Ma et al., 2020). However, local governments and the private sector can develop and implement effective strategies for managing national parks to cope with the opportunities and challenges, such as securing income from resource usage through admission or user fees on residents and visitors, to achieve their sustainable ecotourism goals.
Broadly, the values of ecotourism resources can be divided into use and non-use values (Naidoo and Adamowicz, 2005). Use values are the products and services provided by ecotourism resources for human beings, including both the direct and indirect values that meet human needs, such as science, aesthetics, entertainment and environmental regulation (Wang and Zhong, 2018). Non-use value refers to the value that does not provide services for immediate usage for livelihoods but more long-term services, including life choices, survival and heritage values (Scarpa et al., 2000). Although they are without direct applications (Lin et al., 2014), these values can be evaluated by estimating how much residents are willing to pay for the ecotourism resources (Bennett, 1984). The importance of evaluating ecotourism resources is that they convey the nature of public goods (Turpie, 2003; Sun et al., 2020; Xu et al., 2020), and thus the rational utilization and protection of nature are based on the evaluation outcome. However, unlike economic subjects (with use values), since there is no market transaction for national parks (with non-use values), it is difficult to measure the values of national parks by any specific published prices. Alternatively, for non-use values, Wantrup (Ciriacy-Wantrup, 1947) proposed the contingent valuation method (CVM), which has become widely used in environmental and resource value assessment. After the 1970s, CVM was used to assess the economic values of products ranging from environmental and aesthetic products to various non-market products, such as improving water and air quality (Wang and Zhang, 2009), protecting habitats, wildlife (Kotchen and Reiling, 2000; Baral et al., 2007), biodiversity (Wang and Jia, 2012), healthcare, tourism resources (Wang and Jia, 2012; Wang et al., 2017) and ecological compensation (Zhou et al., 2015). CVM plays an important role in environmental economic assessment and environmental policy in the European Union, the United States and other countries (Shrestha et al., 2007; Wilson et al., 2010). In China, due to political, economic and technological limitations, CVM lacks comprehensiveness in policy, and thus there have been concerns regarding the bias generated or inherited by CVM in the investigation process (Ahlheim et al., 2015). By circumventing or minimizing these issues via improved CVM techniques (Hadker et al., 1997; Roth and Kroo, 2008), this study aims to provide valid CVM results for practical decision-making on the national parks in China via residents’ willingness to pay figures. Meanwhile, the verification of CVM methods (Voltaire et al., 2013) has also become an important objective of this study.
In recent years, people have noticed that tourism may benefit the local and national economies. In the past 10 years, the number of domestic trips in China increased by more than 50%, and it was estimated that there would have been 2.38 billion visitors for the 2010-2020 if there was no COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism contributes more than two percentage points to the country’s GDP. Although Qinghai Province Autonomous Region (located in the northern Tibet) is one of the regions with the least number of tourists on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, its tourism has also grown steadily in the past ten years. The number of tourists has increased by more than three-fold, and travel and tourism revenue has increased by seven-fold. The development of communities for residents, especially those living in nature reserves, is prohibited or severely restricted (Wang et al., 2017). By contrast, China’s recent national tourism revenue has grown by about 12% annually, which has only tripled in ten years. Tourism growth has also occurred in local and national nature reserves and other local forms of protected areas, although the purposes and results are mixed (Wang et al., 2012; Zhong et al., 2015). It is likely that tourism strategies need to be more clearly defined throughout the region, as well as outside the protected areas, especially for the development of national park plans. At the same time, for better or worse, the industry continues to grow. This is often encouraged and supported by local, provincial and national government authorities, but unfortunately, the series of spin-off benefits brought by the development of tourism are often not fully considered. Improper planning may bring people and nature, or potential social and environmental risks to their sustainable development.
In view of the great value of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Ecological Zone to the local people and the country, as well as the understanding of China’s tourism industry and its scale, a few key questions will emerge: What is the purpose of tourism, and who should be encouraged by whom? In addition, what type of tourism is most suitable for the desired purpose? If it is defined and understood correctly, ecotourism obviously occupies a special location method or strategy in tourism, because the ultimate focus of ecotourism is on goals and results, rather than focusing on available locations, activities or assets. For what purposes—and for whom—should tourism be encouraged? And additionally, what forms of tourism are best suited for the desired purposes? What are the residents’ attitudes towards ecotourism? What are the factors that influence residents’ attitudes towards ecotourism? This study evaluates residents’ willingness to pay in the Sanjiangyuan National Park under the CVM frame. Here, willingness to pay includes Willingness to Pay (WTP), Willingness to Work (WTW) and Willingness to Accept Compensation (WTA), and can be represented by these three figures in units of yuan to be paid, hours to work and yuan to be accepted, respectively. Survey-based willingness to pay is an important basis for evaluating the unfavorable use of ecotourism resources, especially in national parks and protected areas with high resident occupancies (Khoo and Ong, 2015). Our aim is to test the factors associated with the utilization of ecotourism resources by residents’ willingness to pay, so as to provide guidance for the management of national parks and other protected areas, and there will be more extensive discussions on tourism and sustainable development (Wilkie et al., 2001).
The factors affecting willingness to pay include socio-economic characteristics, tourists’ satisfaction, social trust and awareness of tourism protected areas (Wang and Jia, 2012). Based on a preliminary literature review, there are a few studies on the relationship between social trust factors and willingness to pay, which mainly focus on public health, drinking water and other social factors (Plott and Zeiler, 2005; Rasool and Ogunbode, 2015; Wang et al., 2018; Schoof et al., 2020). However, as a supplement to the model built in this study, the awareness of tourist protected areas is included, which reflects the particularity and reality of the management of protected areas in China. In a boarder view, the findings of this study may contribute to the studies on willingness to pay for environment conservation of natural attractions in general (Han et al., 2011). Additionally, this study uses quasi-Poisson models (Hsu et al., 1991) to analyze the exact values of WTP, WTW and WTA (in addition to building logistic models for the binary paying, working and accepting) for providing stronger statistical power to reveal the key factors affecting willingness to pay in the Sanjiangyuan National Park. Such a modeling approach is more informative than the strictly binary models for addressing specific and practical issues of national park and protected area management. This research will pay special attention to the important role that ecotourism can play in promoting the development of tourism. How to use (or allow use) over time can greatly improve the social ecological results that affect the future.

2 Survey areas and methods

2.1 Survey areas

The study was carried out in an important nature reserve in Qinghai Province of Northwestern China. The Sanjiangyuan area (Fig. 1) is located in the heart of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, including the source of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers (Foggin, 2008). Administratively, Sanjiangyuan is located in the southern part of Qinghai Province, which is one of the largest provincial units in China. It covers an area of 3.63×105 km2, which is about half of the land area of Qinghai Province (Du, 2012). Like most western parts of China, the climatic conditions are generally dry and the population density is very low (average <10 person km-2). Most strategic decisions are made based on people’s belief that social stability needs to be strengthened and the views related to security close to the frontier. However, the communities that manage the mountainous, grassland and desert resources in western China are still mainly rural areas and the people are usually ethnic minorities within China. As an area of great ecological significance throughout China, a large part of this area was designated as a national nature reserve in 2000 due to its biodiversity and important water regulation functions, covering 1.532×105 km2 area. Recently (in December 2015), the decision was made to transform a large area of the nature reserve into China’s first national park, managed by the central government’s Sanjiangyuan National Park management committee, covering an area of 1.2×105 km2. Since the initial trial started in April 2016, the park management’s goal has been to hire at least 10000 guards from local grazing families to oversee the vast area and act as community liaisons, integrating the dual goals of conservation and socio-economic development together. However, as in other parts of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the high mountain regions of Central Asia, the Sanjiangyuan area and its inhabitant herder communities are still vulnerable to a series of factors outside of their own geography, including the impacts of climate change such as the shrinking of glaciers, as well as seasonal and intensity changes in precipitation patterns (Kang et al., 2010; Li et al., 2013; Yan et al., 2017).
Fig. 1 Study sites in Sanjiangyuan area

2.2 Methods

We designed a standard willingness to pay questionnaire for the Sanjiangyuan National Park and sent out over 300 forms to local residents for a mail survey. We implemented a random sampling of the registered households to survey the residents in Maduo and Zaduo counties. The survey was conducted in 12 towns of Maduo and Zaduo counties within the Sanjiangyuan National Park between July and August 2018. In total, 244 filled questionnaire forms were received and validated, and all the answers including blanks (NAs) were coded in a datasheet. After answering whether they are willing to pay, work and accept compensation, the quantitative multiple-choice questions for WTP, WTW and WTA are provided for the residents to choose from. In addition, the dataset consists of demographic and socioeconomic information for each resident surveyed, social trust and the awareness of and attitude towards ecology tourism. The household address of each resident surveyed was recorded and coded to the county and village names. Demographic information including gender, age, education level, number of household members and family residency length was collected. For socioeconomic information, the annual personal income was recorded, and for social trust, the degree of support for local development of ecology tourism was recorded.
Information on the degree of support for the local development of ecology tourism, whether environment or ecology should receive the priority for local conservation development, the awareness of the largest impact of ecology tourism, whether they had heard about the ecology compensation policy, and the proposed best ecology compensation method were also collected from the questionnaire. Willingness to pay, work, and accept compensation were recorded as 0 for not willing and 1 for willing. Data on WTP, WTA and WTW were also collected from multiple choices for all residents who were willing to pay, work and accept compensation. For residents not willing, their WTP, WTA and WTW were recorded as 0.
Logistic regression following the contingent valuation method (CVM) approach is used to model the indications of willing to pay, work, and accept compensation with the factors related to demographics, socioeconomics, social trust, awareness of and attitude to ecology tourism as independent variables. Based on the discrete distributions of WTP, WTW and WTA, quasi-Poisson regression (Hsu et al., 1991) is used to model each of them using the same set of independent variables. Weighted averages of WTP, WTW and WTA are used to calculate the total WTP, WTA and WTW for the Sanjiangyuan National Park. All the modeling and analyses are conducted using R3.5.1. Before modeling, correlations among independent variables are tested, and highly correlated variables are prescreened (e.g., family residency length is not used for modeling as it is highly correlated with age).

3 Results

3.1 Summary of the survey responses collected

The valid survey results collected from Maduo and Zaduo counties amounted to 129 and 115 responses, respectively. The mean WTP, WTW and WTA based on the questionnaire survey in Maduo are 223 yuan, 25.98 hours and 372.5 yuan yr-1, which are each higher than those in Zaduo of 162.8 yuan, 12.12 hours and 352.5 yuan yr-1, respectively. In particular, the WTW in Maduo is over twice as large as that in Zaduo. The mean age (33.82 vs 38.81 years old), annual personal income (26438 vs 24508 yuan yr-1), number of household members (3.155 vs 4.336 people) and family residency length (32.12 vs 37.43 years) are similar between Maduo and Zaduo. The gender composition is more even (sex ratio closer to 1:1) in Maduo (Male 78: Female 52) than in Zaduo (Male 94: Female 20), and the education levels, responses to, awareness of, and attitudes toward ecology tourism in Maduo and Zaduo are also similar (Table 1; Fig. 2).
Table 1 Summary data for the variables collected from the mail survey conducted in Maduo and Zaduo counties
Variables Maduo County Zaduo County Total
Number of responses received 129 115 244
Number of villages 5 7 12
Mean WTP in yuan yr-1 (Number of responses not willing) 223 (39) 162.8 (20) 194.5 (59)
Mean WTW in hours yr-1 (Number of responses not willing) 25.98 (8) 12.12 (9) 19.48 (17)
Mean WTA in yuan yr-1 (Number of responses not willing) 372.5 (24) 352.5 (19) 363 (43)
Gender composition (M = Male, F = Female) M78, F52 M94, F20 M172, F72
Mean age in years 33.82 38.81 36.17
Mean annual personal income in yuan yr-1 26438 24508 25829
Education level
(P = Primary school, M = Middle school, H = High school, C = College)
P79, M9, H4, C8 P52, M4, H11, C9 P131, M13, H15, C17
Mean number of household members 3.155 4.336 3.738
Mean family residency length in years 32.12 37.43 34.62
Degree of support for local development of ecology tourism
(-1 = Negative, 0 = Neutral, 1 = Some support, 2 = Strong support)
-1, 0, 1, 2: 32, 23, 28, 41 -1, 0, 1, 2: 6, 3, 88, 18 -1, 0, 1, 2: 38, 26, 116, 59
Priority for local conservation development
(Eco = Ecology, Env = Environment)
Eco 10
Env 102
Eco 13
Env 58
Eco 23
Env 160
Awareness of the largest impact of ecology tourism
(A = Air, P = Plantation, R = Rock, S = Soil, W = Water, L = Wildlife)
A 17, P 51, R 10, S 17, W 11, L 23 A 4, P 33, R 12, S 20, W 24, L 18 A 21, P 84, R 22, S 37, W 35, L 41
Heard ecology compensation policy or not
(No = Not Heard, Yes = Heard)
No 59, Yes 61 No 83, Yes 30 No 142, Yes 91
Proposed best ecology compensation method
(Gov = Government, Don = Donation, Tax = Taxation, Tour = Tourism)
Gov 52, Don 33, Tax 25, Tour 12 Gov 71, Don 5, Tax 2, Tour 25 Gov 123, Don 38, Tax 27, Tour 37
Fig. 2 Boxplots of WTP, WTW and WTA by gender, age, and education level.

3.2 Estimated WTP, WTW and WTA for Sanjiangyuan

The weighted averages of WTP, WTW and WTA per person for the entire group of 224 surveyed residents are 194.5 yuan yr-1, 19.48 hours yr-1 and 363 yuan yr-1, respectively. Considering the household population of the Sanjiangyuan National Park was 64 thousand in 2018 (Sanjiangyuan National Park Administration, 2018), the population-adjusted totals for the whole park are:
WTP for the Sanjiangyuan National Park = 64000×194.5 = 1.2448×107 yuan yr-1;
WTW for the Sanjiangyuan National Park = 64000× 19.48 =1.247×106 hours yr-1;
WTA for the Sanjiangyuan National Park = 64000×363 = 2.3232×107 yuan yr-1.

3.3 Inferences for the WTP, WTW and WTA models

This section presents the summary statistics of the respondent’s socio-economic characteristics, and also the responses regarding their perceptions and attitudes.
The county is always an effective blocking factor for the model as the WTP, WTA and WTW in Zaduo County are always significantly lower than those in Maduo County. Overall, the logistic models reveal how the factors of demographics, socioeconomics, social trust and awareness of and attitude to ecology tourism affect the residents’ choices of whether willing to pay, work, and accept compensation; and the quasi-Poisson models reveal these variables’ impacts on the quantitative WTP (Table 2), WTW (Table 3) and WTA (Table 4). Both logistic and quasi-Poisson models for residents’ willingness to pay show that residents in Zaduo County are less willing to pay, work and accept compensation for ecology tourism than those in Maduo. However, gender, age, and whether heard the ecology compensation policy or not do not have significant effects on WTP, WTW and WTA. The degree of support for local development of ecology tourism, the awareness of the largest impact of ecology tourism, the proposed best ecology compensation method, education level and annual income show different impacts on WTP, WTW and WTA. Overall, the higher a resident’s annual income is, the higher WTP that resident demonstrates in the survey. Residents with higher than primary school education levels are likely to demonstrate lower WTP and WTA. Residents proposing the best ecology compensation policy as funding from the government (instead of donation, tax and tourism) are more positive to WTP, WTW and WTA. Impact to air condition is of the least importance compared to impacts to plant, rock, soil, water and wildlife conditions for residents in determining their WTW and WTA, and positive support for local development of ecology tourism is associated with higher WTP and WTW.
Table 2 Logistic and quasi-Poisson model output for willing to pay
Variable Logistic model (Willing to pay) quasi-Poisson model (WTP)
Coefficient Standard error and significance Coefficient Standard error and significance
County: Zaduo -2.32 0.799 ** -0.768 0.299 *
Degree of support for tourism:
4.60 1.36 *** 2.52 0.682 ***
Some support 5.17 1.21 *** 2.32 0.596 ***
Strong support 3.61 1.01 *** 1.93 0.569 ***
Awareness of the largest impact:
-0.054 0.953 -0.270 0.451
Rock 0.906 1.61 1.23 0.946
Soil -1.25 1.05 -0.486 0.481
Water 17.80 1032.00 -0.324 0.582
Wildlife -0.402 1.02 -0.321 0.449
Heard ecological compensation policy: Yes -0.496 0.592 -0.235 0.288
Proposed best ecology compensation method:
-1.58 0.877 -0.338 0.359
Taxation -2.40 1.12 * -1.073 0.448 *
Tourism 0.826 0.825 -0.322 -0.318
Gender: Female -0.508 0.572 -0.420 0.287
Mean age 0.00323 0.0277 0.00828 0.0121
Education level:
Middle school
0.144 0.968 -0.219 0.415
High school -0.897 1.13 -2.14 1.03 *
College 1.59 1.38 -0.847 -0.553
Annual income 0.0000520 0.0000240 * 0.0000207 0.00000901 *

Note: Significance levels: * means 0.01<P<0.05, ** means 0.001<P<0.01, and *** means 0<P<0.001.

Table 3 Logistic and quasi-Poisson model output for willing to work
Variable Logistic model (Willing to work) quasi-Poisson model (WTW)
Coefficient Standard error and significance Coefficient Standard error and significance
County: Zaduo -3.18 1.17 ** -1.65 0.207 ***
Degree of support for tourism:
1.99 1.70 -0.014 0.312
Some support 2.96 1.46 * 0.281 0.215
Strong support 2.86 1.62 . 0.417 0.173 *
Awareness of thelargest impact:
0.763 1.08 0.994 0.322 **
Rock 0.160 11.85 0.805 0.451 .
Soil 1.92 1.25 0.753 0.332 *
Water 18.17 1799.00 0.771 0.381 *
Wildlife 1.03 1.32 0.640 0.323 .
Heard ecological compensation policy: Yes 1.81 0.947 . -0.182 -0.178
Proposed bestecology compensation method:
-1.96 1.27 -0.438 0.216 *
Taxation -3.94 1.69 * -0.907 0.262 ***
Tourism 0.414 1.26 -0.429 0.197 *
Gender: Female -1.00 0.805 -0.204 0.155
Mean age 0.00751 0.0563 0.00218 0.00729
Education level:
Middle school
-1.99 1.17 -0.327 0.319
High school -0.850 1.23 -0.453 0.366
College -0.959 1.51 -0.319 0.296
Annual income 0.0000339 0.0000359 -0.00000239 0.00000529

Note: Significance levels: * means 0.01<P<0.05, ** means 0.001<P<0.01, and *** means 0<P<0.001.

Table 4 Logistic and quasi-Poisson model output for willing to accept compensation
Variables Logistic model (Willing to accept compensation) quasi-Poisson model (WTA)
Coefficient Standard error and significance Coefficient Standard error and significance
County: Zaduo -1.48 0.698 * -0.886 0.203 ***
Degree of support for tourism:
0.374 1.24 0.349 0.394
Some support 1.00 0.923 0.334 0.228
Strong support 0.860 0.945 0.277 0.194
Awareness of the largest impact:
-1.02 0.940 -0.145 0.353
Rock -0.916 1.43 -0.202 0.500
Soil -0.846 1.05 -0.734 0.364 *
Water -1.90 1.18 -0.844 0.477
Wildlife -0.731 1.14 -0.478 0.349
Heard ecological compensation policy: Yes 0.232 0.637 -0.380 0.207
Proposed best ecology compensation method:
-2.89 0.958 ** -1.31 0.305 ***
Taxation -4.00 1.08 *** -2.51 0.455 ***
Tourism -1.36 0.777 -0.854 0.257 **
Gender: Female 0.0633 0.607 -0.0669 0.169
Mean age -0.00669 0.0317 -0.000680 0.00739
Education level:
Middle school
-0.206 1.02 0.197 0.299
High school -3.27 1.04 ** -1.42 0.484 **
College -0.685 1.22 -0.367 0.325
Annual income -0.0000419 0.0000241 -0.00000430 -0.00000593

Note: Significance levels: * means 0.01<P<0.05, ** means 0.001<P<0.01, and *** means 0<P<0.001.

4 Discussion

4.1 Factors associated with willingness to pay

4.1.1 Socioeconomic characteristics
In China and elsewhere, stakeholders’ WTP and WTA play a vital role in the implementation of environmental policies (Grêt-Regamey et al., 2012). Gender can affect people’s behavior, values and characteristics, so it may be an important factor in WTP, WTW and WTA. Unlike some previous findings (Borisova and Goodman, 2003; Ishiguro, 2019), we found that gender and age are not significant factors for willingness to pay, work or accept compensation. Such non-significance indicates that if the government is required to allocate compensation for environmental deterioration caused by developing tourism in the Sanjiangyuan National Park, the amount of local residents’ willingness to pay may not depend on gender or age. Though this study does not reveal any link between local residents’ willingness to pay to their gender or age (Fig. 2), it is likely that potential links may be identified if more residents from different counties, age groups and genders are surveyed. Education level and annual income (Fig. 2) are found to have different impacts on WTP, WTW and WTA. Overall, higher annual income is associated with higher WTP that the resident demonstrates in their survey responses. Previous studies by Xu et al. (2003) also found that income affected visitors’ WTP. It is possible that their wealth has made the higher-income individuals more open-minded and more willing to give and accept.
In contrast, residents with higher than primary school education levels are more likely to demonstrate lower WTP and WTA, which was not consistent with the research of Wang et al. (2019) and Li and Cai (2016), but the same as the findings in Feng et al. (2018) and Wang et al. (2016). A significantly negative relationship is often observed between educational background and WTA. This has been attributed to a more robust understanding of the long-term benefits of environmental protection among more highly educated participants (Xiong and Kong, 2017). On the map of China, nature reserves and poverty-stricken areas are highly overlapping in space (Zhou et al., 2019). Therefore, it may be that residents with higher than primary school education levels are more likely to demonstrate lower WTP because the residents in developing countries are willing to pay for eco-tourism resources, but they cannot pay because of their own wealth limitations (Navrud and Mungatana, 1994).
4.1.2 Willingness to pay analysis
Family status, state compensation efforts, and policy implementation have been found to have a significant influence on an individual’s WTP, WTW and WTA (Wang et al., 2011). In our survey, social trust (the degree of support for local development of ecology tourism, and the awareness of the largest impact of ecology tourism), and the proposed best ecology compensation method also have different impacts on WTP, WTW and WTA.
Residents proposing the best ecology compensation policy as funding from the government instead of either donation, tax or tourism are more willing to pay, work and accept compensation. Only residents who choose the source of government compensation have a clear positive trend, while those who choose the other three sources have no obvious positive trend. The strong influence of government revenue is related to their trust in the government, including local protection policies, which was also confirmed by local family interviews in our survey. Their wealth makes them more enlightened. This is expected, as residents of protected areas in developing countries are inclined to accept direct capital forms of compensation, rather than knowledge and technology, in aid of their economic prosperity (Ellis, 2000). Such empirical results from this study indicate that the optimal form of compensation for the Sanjiangyuan National Park is funds directly available for residents, through which the government will positively affect residents’ willingness to pay for, work for and accept ecotourism. From this aspect, it can be seen that the government policy and mediation act as a very important ecological compensation mechanism for local residents.
Residents are found to demonstrate various concerns about the different environmental components in the questionnaire survey, which in turn affect their willingness to work and accept compensation. Air condition is of the least importance compared to plant, rock, soil, water and wildlife conditions for residents to determine their WTW and WTA. For residents in the Sanjiangyuan National Park, air quality has not been a problem in the past, so they would not be worried about air problems yet. In particular, residents believe that tourism development will have the greatest impact on plant vegetation; and most tourists believe that ecotourism should not harm the natural and sustainable surrounding environments. On the contrary, a positive attitude towards the support for local development of ecology tourism is associated with higher WTP and WTW. In other words, the social trust factor is related to WTP. Considering that developing ecotourism in national parks may bring significant economic benefits to residents and may boost the spread of local minority cultures, the residents (most from Tibetan cultures) would respond more positively to WTP and WTW with a demonstration of their support for government ecotourism development policies. Therefore, government and ecological managers should also consider the cultural origins and support levels for present policies of different groups of residents living in the protected areas so as to optimize their development plans and compensation policies.

4.2 Suggestions for the implementation of tourism ecological compensation

4.2.1 Standard of compensation for the Sanjiangyuan National Park
In the study of ecological compensation, the "standard" of compensation has been the focus of much academic debate, because it is the core of ecological compensation mechanisms in consistent exploration. At present, most of the well-accepted methods for drafting and formalizing the local compensation standards are based on the results of direct cost, opportunity cost and conditional value assessment on the exploitation of ecological services and environmental resources. Specifically, this study suggests that the minimum standard amount of tourism ecological compensation in the Sanjiangyuan National Park should be considered as 1.2448×107 yuan yr-1 to match the estimated WTP magnitude of the national park residents.
4.2.2 Develop a specific mechanism for sustainable ecotourism
The stakeholders of tourism ecological compensation in the Sanjiangyuan National Park consist of various groups, including local residents and government policymakers. When establishing the mechanism of ecological compensation, it is advisable to analyze the various “stakeholders” so as to distinguish the destroyer, protector, beneficiary and sufferer. For those who pay for and suffer losses of their capital and labor, or who are forced to abandon economic development opportunities to protect the ecological environment, their actions should be given the corresponding measures. These sufferings include land type changes for natural protection and sustainable management, the cost of relocation from protected areas to villages, and switching from agricultural related occupations to labor demanding jobs.
Compensation is an effective mechanism to encourage residents to better protect the natural ecological environment while eliminating their concerns about their losses during ecotourism development. The parties responsible for the compensation include those who benefit from tourism activities and its subsidiary business, such as tourism enterprises, hotels, restaurants, travel guides and transportation companies. These beneficiaries should be regulated by the government to provide corresponding compensation and convey the responsibility of protecting and restoring the ecological environment for the local residents and the protected areas. There are different types of tourism ecological compensations, such as capital, policy, technology, labor service and material objects, among which the most common one is the direct monetary compensation distributed per resident, called ecological tourism compensation. From the results of this study, we find that the primary method of tourism ecological compensation in the Sanjiangyuan National Park should be based on available funds as well. Specifically, the government should lead the funding scheme by mobilizing various social resources, such as trust foundations, environmental organizations and conservation volunteers, to raise contributions from government purchases, subsidies, social donations, public issuance of environmental and environmental protection funds, and the collection of taxes. In addition, special compensation funds can be established in various forms for the Sanjiangyuan National Park, such as environmental protected area land taxes and national park maintenance fees. In the use of tourism ecological compensation funds, we can adopt a comprehensive supervision mechanism to let the society and the public supervise the sources and uses of the ecological compensation funds, which will in return enhance the people’s trust in the government and support for the ecological compensation mechanisms (Moore, 1995; Kadushin and Harkness, 2014). Subject to the central government approval, it is also advised to establish a supervisory group for tourism ecological compensation funds to audit and publicize relevant taxation and information, so as to ensure the rational and effective use of tourism ecological compensation funds.
4.2.3 Promote conservation and community development through ecotourism
In ecologically important but vulnerable areas, such as the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, Yellow River and Mekong River (or the source of the Sanjiangyuan), the government is trying to find diversified ways to develop local economies in order to reduce the pressure of grazing on the grasslands and reduce the population’s dependence on livestock. Both the public and private sectors recognize that the rich cultural and natural assets, namely the extraordinary mountain and grassland landscape, the unique local nomadic culture and the rich biodiversity of the region, provide great potential for the development of tourism in the region. With appropriate policies, substantial economic benefits can be brought to the community; however, if this is not the case, there may also be serious leakage in the tourism industry, and most of the social and economic benefits may flow to entrepreneurs and enterprises. As many communities around the world have pointed out, the potential of ecotourism is unique. Considering the dual goals of environmental protection and community development, it is worth noting that China’s national parks also take these two as their basic pillars. Therefore, it is natural that ecotourism practitioners and government agencies should appropriately strengthen and develop the ecotourism strategy of all protected areas and other nature reserves in the country to support them. These goals, as well as recording experience, inform the community on the development of appropriate strategies.
According to our first-hand experience and observations and research results in the past 4 years, we have learned certain lessons that may be derived from specific contexts or events, but it is worth noting that they also have significant regional and potentially wide applications. Based on those lessons, we found:
(1) Like other sectors, the communities that participate in tourism decision-making tend to show a greater sense of corporate ownership, so they tend to participate more in the cause of ecotourism, and their in-depth involvement ensures its long-term stable development, and ultimately makes the whole project successful.
(2) Through strengthening civil society, including capacity building, leadership development and promoting the establishment of professional and activity-based networks, it is possible to reach strong support and encouragement and acceptance, and the promotion of peer-to-peer learning. It has been found in many instances that this approach can increase the sense of hope among local residents, leading to greater participation in the development of new options. Hope is a powerful force that can combine human, natural, economic and political realities to lead to sustainable development solutions.
(3) Finally, ecotourism can be regarded as part of the strategy of integrated ecosystem management, that is, based on existing assets and striving to achieve a certain range of development goals simultaneously. Based on the research results, the main method of tourism ecological compensation in the Sanjiangyuan National Park should also be based on available funds. However, it should not be regarded as a means of livelihood (with the loss of all other forms of livelihood), but as a supplementary amendment to the current situation. It is helpful to have a range of development options. When ecotourism and other livelihood options are implemented collectively, they enhance the adaptability to rapid environmental and global changes.
In short, ecotourism can play an important role, and it should be promoted because its core is purpose-driven tourism, so it aims to meet various needs and the interests of many stakeholders, especially the local communities themselves.
4.2.4 Strengthen eco-tourism in the Sanjiangyuan National Park
In this study, we find that the education level of local residents in the Sanjiangyuan National Park is mainly below the high school level. Based on their questionnaire responses, although most people, have heard about the words “ecological compensation”, they do not know the concepts of and details about ecological tourism, ecological compensation or the process of ecotourism development. Despite the limited level of education, the fact that residents do not consider terms and conditions of regulations does not hinder recent social and ecological transformation.
The key fact to keep in mind is that tourism should not be developed for itself or for tourism. For external stakeholders, namely tourists or travel agencies, sustainability or community well-being is considered important and cannot be measured only by the number of tourists traveling in a certain area, or the amount of investment, expenditure or funds raised in that area. It should start from a local perspective, from a community and natural environment perspective, and it is best to treat tourism as a valuable tool that can be used to achieve specific and clear goals. Regarding the vast Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, most national and international concerns are focused on it, as it has great environmental significance, especially as a local and downstream water source. Rare, endangered and endemic species of wild animals and plants have also attracted people’s attention. At the same time, people clearly recognize the importance of building a “harmonious society”. To this end, the Chinese government attaches great importance to promoting poverty alleviation, developing transportation and communication systems, promoting educational opportunities, and strengthening health and other social services in Qinghai Province. However, ongoing tensions often occur between conservation and development goals, such as China’s signature ecosystem-oriented “red line” approach to development zoning (Bo et al., 2019), and the development of formal protected areas is advancing. In order to bridge this obvious sectoral gap, a more comprehensive “circular economy” (Liu et al., 2017) has also been promoted to ensure the full protection of China’s basic ecological resources (Liu et al., 2008; Xu et al., 2017), while meeting people’s needs and desires. In a comprehensive view of China in the future, we have proven that through judicial development and application, eco-tourism will have obvious capabilities as a department that contributes to environmental protection and community development.
Sanjiangyuan National Park should have been the first national park officially established in China with an expected launch date in late 2020, which was postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19. In accordance with strict trade protectionism guidelines, especially through its provincial and national nature reserves, the new national park system proposes a more balanced model (Cao et al., 2015; Xu et al., 2017; He et al., 2018). But in addition to formal parks, we should also recall that many local groups (indigenous communities and indigenous peoples who have been protecting and using communities for generations) are committed to sustainable landscape development. As long-term (aboriginal) owners or custodians of the entire environment, they have recently gained more recognition and appreciation globally.
In the tourism industry which is known for its economic potential, ecotourism obviously plays a very important role for both humans and nature. Protected areas, including Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas (ICCA), can also be used as tools for our collective efforts to adapt to climate change (Gross et al., 2016). In addition, in ICCA or below, the use of non-consumable resources such as purpose-driven ecotourism, occupies an important position and has the promise of achieving multiple goals simultaneously. However, mountain communities themselves have important “institutions” or authority in decision-making; people are only regarded as assets of cultural tourism, just like seeing mountains, glaciers and wild animals only as assets of natural tourism. We should not only listen to the voices of the external experts, but also the voices of the aboriginal people who have lived in the area for a long time. This is crucial because each side has its own knowledge system, and often very different knowledge systems, sometimes even different “cognitive ways” of recognizing multiple voices is essential to ensure development. Fairness and justice are two basic elements of sustainable development (Jonas et al., 2017). Looking deeper, a further question arises: who is working with whom? In their list of global priorities for sustainable mountains, government policies can have far-reaching impacts. They also pointed out that any behavior that may further aggravate the marginalization of mountain communities must be highly scrutinized and prevent tourism from touching aspects of their livelihoods and cultural heritage. For these reasons and more, it is emphasized here that community-centered and goal-oriented eco-tourism plays a particularly important role in promoting the fair, just and sustainable development of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Finally, for the local Tibetans Pastoralists and communities, their need to protect the natural environment, including alpine grasslands and wildlife (sometimes described as “gems on the land”) is not difficult to understand, because this environment is passed on from generation to generation, and they have realized that they must also promote sustainable development and protection.
However, in the recent era, the pressure brought by globalization and the loss of social and cultural heritage have caused many people to fall into the trap of seeking short-term gains and benefits, despite the long-term heavy losses to themselves and others. Based on a true partnership and an integrated holistic approach, by working together, eco-tourism can make important contributions to the sustainable development of the residents in the park, the park, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and elsewhere.

4.3 Limitations

4.3.1 Contrasts between the Maduo and Zaduo counties
Based on the questionnaire survey, the estimated means of WTP, WTW and WTA in Maduo are higher than those in Zaduo; especially the WTW in Maduo, which is over twice as high as that in Zaduo. In addition, both logistic models for residents’ willingness to pay and quasi-Poisson models for WTP, WTW and WTA show that residents in Zaduo county are less willing to pay, work and accept compensation for ecology tourism than those in Maduo. Thus, the residents of Zaduo County are more reluctant to pay, work or accept compensation than the residents of Maduo County. It is likely that the heterogeneous responses are not only due to the confounding influences of altitude, geographical location, ecosystem type, and the demographic history, but also due to the different development methods, distributions of natural resources, population compositions and differences between rich and poor in these two counties. A mail survey conducted in less educated and developed regions (including the Sanjiangyuan National Park) may encounter difficulty in achieving randomized sampling for the representation of the entire community. However, this study endeavored to distribute the questionnaire as evenly as possible to over 300 households in the two counties and check each response for the survey completeness in order to reduce the sampling bias. Considering the inevitable limitations in sample sizes and actual geographic and demographic characters of the two counties and residents surveyed, we could not precisely predict the specific causes of such contrasting results between the two counties in this study. This type of standard questionnaire research in rural and under-developed towns could also be biased by the accessibility of random samples and the completeness of responses by illiterate or semi-literate participants. However, as the estimated WTP, WTW and WTA are calculated based on the averages of these two counties, these figures are informative for representing the willingness to pay of the Sanjiangyuan National Park. By controlling the potential effect of county, the logistic and quasi-Poisson models can provide less biased results for the factors associated with willingness to pay, and thus provide informative figures for the ecological conservation managers to make their decisions.
4.3.2 Contingent value method
The contingent value assessment method (CVM) applied in this study assists in identifying the major factors that affect residents’ willingness to pay, work and accept compensation as quantitative values of environmental and ecological goods and services. However, in many case studies, WTP and other ecological values estimated by CVM carried out in developing countries were underestimated (Solikin, 2017). One possible explanation is that people in developing countries may have different preferences for environmental goods and services other than the typical capital and labor. For example, residents in developing countries may prefer selling their handmade souvenirs or providing private guide services to working for the government. Another explanation emphasizes the effect of poverty on the valuation, i.e., the effect of limited income to make ends meet instead of deficiencies in actual preferences, as is the case of the Sanjiangyuan National Park. A suggestion to resolve this problem is that surveyors and local governments should include the nonmonetary contributions as a payment method to better assess the residents’ willingness to pay (Solikin, 2017), which was attempted in this study.

5 Conclusions

An appropriate pricing policy in national parks can be used as a tool to not only achieve successful and sustainable management of the national parks, but also provide quality products and services at fair prices to visitors. The central question is how to establish an appropriate pricing policy for the national parks? Park resources such as scenic beauty and conservation of endangered species are not traded in the marketplace like many other commodities, so they require the use of non-market valuation techniques. One of the methods commonly used for non-market valuation is the CVM. With willingness to pay, work and accept compensation as the elicitation figures, CVM was used to determine the appropriate pricing policy for the sustainable management of the Sanjiangyuan National Park.
This study applies both the logistic and quasi-Poisson modeling techniques to the standard questionnaire-based willingness to pay data. The first-hand analytical approach and results of this study are informative for the Sanjiangyuan National Park authorities and other protected area managers to study and understand the residents’ willingness to pay for ecotourism resource protection and associated factors.
The WTP, WTW and WTA for ecotourism resources and development of the Sanjiangyuan National Park were estimated 1.2448×107 yuan, 1.247×106 hours and 2.3232 ×107 yuan yr-1, respectively. These three figures indicate that local residents contribute great willingness to pay, work and accept compensation for ecotourism in their surrounding protected areas as compared to China’s national averages (Bai et al., 2009; Wang and Zhong, 2018).
In this study, income and education level have important effects on farmers’ WTP and WTA. Other social characteristics, such as gender and age, did not have significant effects. The social trust is found to be a significant factor influencing residents’ willingness to pay. The management institutions should consider consolidating residents’ trust via improved compensation systems and public supervision mechanisms, despite the limited level of education, and the fact that residents do not understand terms does not hinder their WTP. Also, the factors associated with government funding led to residents’ inclination to WTP, WTW and WTA, but the support levels differ among different counties due to geographical and social heterogeneities. In order to resolve the respondent bias, the survey intensity and simplicity should be improved to consolidate the willingness to pay assessments in future studies. Residents believe that their WTP output should be applied in protecting and restoring wildlife, vegetation, soil and water resources. Notably, ecotourism is not merely tourism that is situated within landscapes of great beauty or in places where wildlife is present, this is simply nature tourism. Ecotourism is much more than this, as it is fundamentally more concerned with outcomes than assets, outcomes achieved through the partnerships developed and the activities undertaken. By definition, ecotourism should also be both responsible and sustainable. The reverse, however, is not always the case, as the fact that any particular tour is responsible or sustainable does not itself imply or necessitate that such a venture be labeled as ecotourism per se; such attributes simply point toward their straightforward characteristic-based tourism typological namesakes. We believe that the results of our paper can provide informative results and implications for people from neighboring countries, other developing countries, and world conservation organizations (Foggin and Yuan, 2020).


We wish to thank the Sanjiangyuan National Park administration for their devoted contributions to the study. In addition, thanks to the government staffs of the Lancangjiang National Park Management Committee for supplying informational material to participants of the study. Thanks to Marc Foggin for providing useful suggestions and comments.
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