SHANGRI-LA, CHINA — Yang Xuemei grew up tending yak with her family in this outpost on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. These days, she herds tourists through the alpine pastures and other scenic climes of Pudacuo National Park -- 1,243 square miles of soaring mountains and glacial lakes inhabited by red pandas and nearly 100 other endangered species.
Her job as a tour guide broadens her horizons beyond the toothy mountains that define her life.
"It's hard to go out into the world from here," said Yang, 23. "This way, I meet people, and I hear how exciting the world is."
The park's broader value lies in the 2,000 tourists who visit each day -- mostly from other parts of China as well as Japan and South Korea -- and the jobs their spending creates. Tour guides, for instance, make about $1,300 for 10 months' work -- twice what Yang's parents earn from their yak herds in a year.
The economic downturn is slowing tourism worldwide. The slowdown -- combined with tightened entry rules for the Beijing Olympics, a catastrophic earthquake and Tibetan unrest -- contributed to the first decline in China tourism since the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. China received 130 million foreign visitors last year, a decline of 2 million, the government reported last week.
Still, local leaders see Pudacuo, China's first national park -- and plans for others like it -- as key to the economic future of the region. The central government also is promoting tourism to help lift rural inhabitants out of poverty the way manufacturing has improved the fortunes of its city dwellers. The national tourism administration has declared 2009 the year of ecotourism, a promotional effort that will showcase China's spectacular natural attractions outside the better-known cities.
Opened nearly two years ago with the help of the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, the park is a stunning example of how this southwest corner of China is trying to raise the standard of living by showcasing its natural beauty.
The Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which consists of three counties in Yunnan province, is developing along the path of the American West -- capitalizing on its wealth of mineral resources, the power of the three rivers that rush through it and the splendor of its soaring peaks, plunging gorges and bucolic mountain valleys. This is big-sky China.
The official slogan of China's year of ecotourism is "Be a green traveler and experience eco-civilization." Pudacuo park serves this goal by requiring visitors to park their cars and tour the park in low-emission buses shepherded by guides such as Yang.
Still, there is some concern that overdevelopment could spoil the natural beauty and dilute the Tibetan culture of Diqing. But local authorities pledge to tread lightly. Logging in the region was halted a few years ago to preserve the alpine forests, and heavy industry is off the table, said Qi Zhala, the Communist Party secretary for Diqing.
Ecotourism, farming, mining and hydropower are the "four pillars" of the region's economy, Qi said. Promoting environmentally sensitive tourism, already 20% of the area's gross domestic product, is a high priority.
"We have one national park," Qi said. "We are planning four more over the next 20 years. . . . There is huge space for growth in tourism."
Diqing boasts a one-strip airport with daily, one-hour flights to provincial capital Kunming, a budding bulb and flower industry and a handful of Tibetan mastiff breeders. The world's lowest-latitude ski resort opened here a few years ago, and a Singapore developer just built a high-end hotel featuring bungalows that reflect the architecture of a nearby monastery.
Gift-shop merchants hawk Tibetan silver necklaces, Burmese jade bracelets, yak bells and horn combs in a bustling souvenir village. Farmers' daughters dressed in Tibetan-style vests, jeans and sneakers serve barley liquor, yak butter tea and bubbling caldrons of spicy stews in stone hot pots in tourist pubs. Yak herders' wives change the linens in a handful of low-slung hotels.
But most people earn a living the way their parents and grandparents did: herding yak for their milk, meat, coats and horns, and growing barley and root vegetables on postage-stamp-size farms plied by hand, or, for the lucky few, with an ox or two. Without tractors, let alone pickup trucks, farmers pluck their vegetables from the soil, pile them high on the side of the road and wait for big blue trucks to come around and take the produce to market.
Indoor plumbing is rare, and smoke from the open wood stoves that heat homes produces in these people more than their share of respiratory and other health problems.
The development of tourist attractions enables rural residents to cash in on the travel dollars of China's growing urban middle class. With 1.6 billion tourists a year, China's domestic travel market represents a huge cash yak for the nation's economy.