Yushu Rivers School

Yushu Rivers School

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$1,000 - $10,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The Yushu Rivers School is a pilot ecotourism training course in Qinghai Province that will help launch a new tourism product in the region devastated by the April, 2010 earthquake. The multi-function school will build guide skills and forge links between river communities, tourism officials, and domestic tourist markets.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Chinese society is disconnected from its rivers. People in China lack awareness of the compelling benefits of free-flowing rivers, the diverse communities they sustain, and the value they have as heritage and as tourism resources. And though there is an increasing interest in outdoor recreation experiences in China, there are few opportunities for urban Chinese to enjoy meaningful river recreation. While there are hundreds of day trip raft companies in eastern China, the outstanding river resources of western China have yet to be developed for rafting tourism. All of these rivers are threatened by thousands of dams that will be built in the next ten to fifteen years, and the impacts of dam development are poorly understood through all levels of Chinese society. These impacts are particularly obscured in ethnic minority regions of western China, where we will launch our rivers school. In these regions, there is a critical need to demonstrate alternative development paths that are sustainable, participatory, and tolerant of cultural diversity. Hydropower dams may be necessary in many areas, but Chinese society also needs river heritage, for wildlife and for people.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

The Yushu Rivers School innovates by facilitating discussions and partnerships that can help create post-earthquake economic re-development opportunities complementing regional environmental protection goals. With the rebuilding of basic infrastructure well underway, local and provincial governments have chosen ecotourism as an economically and environmentally sustainable development option for the Yushu area. There are indeed many factors that give Yushu strong potential for growing an ecotourism economy. But community needs assessments, practical guide trainings, and demonstrations of ecotourism products suited for the Yushu region are all critically needed to ensure momentum for ecotourism development continues. River rafting has a new and growing client base in China, is a low-impact tourism product, and can have profoundly positive environmental education outcomes. And Yushu is an ideal yet undiscovered hub for exploring scenic, diverse river canyons that are areas of critical cultural and biological diversity. Further, because rafting is relatively new to the Yushu region, it has the advantage of being an ideal focal point for experimenting with new participatory approaches. The Yushu Rivers School builds upon the broader efforts of China Rivers Project to facilitate development of a sustainable river recreation industry in China, helping to grow China’s river conservation movement. Our approach is unique among hundreds of domestic and foreign raft operators in China. We address the root causes of the threats to China’s rivers through a river-positive approach that navigates a relatively tight political space.
About You
China Rivers Project
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name



China Rivers Project


, CA, Alameda County

Section 2: About Your Organization
Organization Name

China Rivers Project

Organization Phone


Organization Address

55 Prall Lane, Eugene, OR 97405

Organization Country

, 27

Your idea
Country your work focuses on

, 27

Would you like to participate in the MIF Opportunity 2010?

Do you have a patent for this idea?

What impact have you had on your clients and the tourism sector?

China Rivers Projects and Last Descents River Expeditions, co-leaders of the Yushu Rivers School, have worked in partnership for several years as pioneers in rafting in western China. While rafting has a huge potential market in China, its growth has been limited by the widespread perception in China that rafting is a dangerous, expert-only sport. We have successfully challenged that perception by organizing dozens of fun, educational trips that re-brand rafting as an accessible way of enjoying China’s wild rivers. We have worked to attract media participation, resulting in our trips being featured in major Chinese media, including an 8-page spread in China National Geographic Magazine, an hour long special on China Central Television, and a cover story in China Outside Magazine. These stories have exposed millions of Chinese viewers and readers to recreational river rafting and the beauty and majesty of China’s endangered rivers.

In addition, China Rivers Project and Last Descents have organized several trips that include influential leaders in Chinese conservation movement, entrepreneurs, and national and local government officials. Our “Floating Forum” style of trip allows for a free exchange of ideas and collaboration, and outcome generation. This approach has worked well for a variety of client groups exploring river conservation, river science, environmental journalism, and river recreation. We also helped launch a Chinese language website dedicated to exchange of information among amateur boaters (www.chinaraft.com), and we are the first to offer amateur trainings in whitewater kayaking in China.

Through our educational river trips, China Rivers Project and Last Descents have effectively influenced people who can make a difference for rivers in China to make that choice. Our trips grow changemakers.


The Yushu Rivers School will lay the foundation for a local river ecotourism industry that can complement and enhance more developed ecotourism products in the Yushu area, such as trekking and wildlife viewing. The Yushu Rivers School begins with a river guide skills and river interpretation training. The culmination of the training will be a three-day “Floating Forum” which will allow trainees to put their new skills to use while exposing government officials to Yushu’s rivers, engaging them in a demonstration community participation exercise, and fostering collaborations with ecotourism professionals. These discussions are a needed first step to assessing the suitability of river ecotourism as a development path for local communities. A pilot project that takes advantage of a time-sensitive opportunity, the Yushu Rivers School will employ a collaborative approach that can become a model for future trainings in Yushu and other regions of western China. These types of models are critically needed as a counterpoint, at a time when all of China's remaining great western rivers are slated for hydropower development.


The primary expected result of the Yushu Rivers School will be the strengthening of dialogue with local government regarding how to implement rafting ecotourism in the region. In addition, the training will introduce local guides to basic rafting skills and strengthen our organizations’ relationships with river-side communities. We anticipate that the Yushu Rivers School demonstration will facilitate the inclusion of rafting in the upcoming five year plan for tourism in the region. And we also expect that the school will help pave the way for the creation of a bricks-and-mortar river recreation and education center, a long term goal of our efforts in the region. Further, we anticipate that through the School, we will hone in on a model for future trainings in rafting tourism development that will have positive impacts for other regions of western China.

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Please address each year separately, if possible.

The Yushu Rivers School pilot project will launch in summer, 2011. To be successful, we will first work with our partners in the area to recruit local participants and help us design an innovative, local river guide training course. The course will take place over a one- month period, and will consist of a pre-training event, one week of training, and a final week dedicated to organizing and conducting a three-day river trip. Participants will learn rafting skills, low-impact tourism methods, and scenery interpretation. Participants will contribute to the training by proposing and leading components they identify as. The second innovation critical to the success of this pilot training is a culminating river trip that will facilitate participatory ecotourism planning by the Yushu Tourism Bureau, river communities, and ecotourism experts. The context of a river trip will make it possible for discussions to happen in an open, non-political setting conducive to active sharing and listening.

If successful, the 2011 pilot training will help attract continued funding for a second year of training in 2012. We will expand the school to include more participants, including paying participants drawn from the small but growing amateur boating communities found in China’s cities. The second year of the training will focus on cultural tolerance, learning more advanced river tourism skill including trip marketing, and continued outreach to local government officials.

The third year of the School (2013) will launch a campaign to attract funding for a bricks- and-mortar rivers center, which will be operated collectively and will serve as a center for river ecotourism and education. In the third year of the program, we hope to begin to shift some of the major responsibilities of the school, such as running trainings and river trips, to local guides. We will also seek to conduct new trainings in other regions of western China.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

A critical requirement of any type of new ecotourism product in the Yushu area is government support. While entrepreneurial tourism products may be quite welcomed in more cosmopolitan regions of China, Yushu is a sensitive area, both because of its ethnic Tibetan minority population and because of the need to ensure the success of post-earthquake response efforts. At any time, the local government could decide that rafting is an inappropriate activity for the region, or that it is undesirable to have foreigners working as ecotourism trainers (so far, there are no qualified local raft trainers).

Another potential obstacle to our goal to see rafting ecotourism flourish in the region is that local people may themselves find that rafting is an inappropriate activity. Or, we may not be able to find local guides with sufficient time and interest to learn rafting skills. Rivers have many different meanings in Tibetan culture and religion, and it is thus critical that we partner with supportive local organizations to help ensure that the Yushu Rivers School responds to the needs and interests of local communities.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy or introduce models and tools that benefit the tourism sector in general?


What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

In what country?

, 27

Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


If yes, provide organization name.

China Rivers Project, Last Descents River Expeditions

How long has this organization been operating?

1‐5 years

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

Partnerships are a necessary component of the Yushu Rivers School on several fronts. A key goal of the School is to build capacity in participatory river ecotourism development and our culminating trip will include participatory assessment of community needs. Our previous trips in the Yushu area have been possible only through the support and partnership of a number of government agencies, non-profit organizations, and river-side communities. These partnerships will continue, as we will work with the Yushu Tourism Bureau and local organizations to design the training, coordinating school participation, and organize our focus group discussions with local communities. Further, we will partner with Shan Shui, a Beijing-based organization working with the Yushu government to develop an overall ecotourism development strategy. Our project will feed into their planning efforts and in turn, Shan Shui will assist with recruiting government and ecotourism industry participants.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization?

The most important action needed to grow our initiative is demonstrating that rafting can be a viable ecotourism product in the region. While commercial has existed in the area for several years, there are no local guides, and rafting has not yet been incorporated into official government plans for tourism development. These obstacles need to be overcome in order to shift the perception of rafting as an elite activity to a tourism product that boosts the local economy and enhances local conservation efforts. Our success running commercial, conservation-oriented trips in the region give us the necessary skills, resources, and contacts to ensure that a pilot project of this type is safe and effective.

Second, it is critical that local tourism bureau officials have the chance to actually participate in rafting, to build their understanding of rafting and their ability to make informed decisions regarding managing rafting tourism in the future. Thus our pilot Yushu Rivers School will culminate in a trip, organized with the participation of trainees, for the benefit of strengthening relationships between participating organizations, local communities, and government officials.

Finally, it is important to develop a focal project that can permanently support river ecotourism development in the Yushu area. A physical location for a river training center needs to be identified, and resources for leasing and developing land are needed. The river training center will ensure a home base for offering low cost trainings and river tourism and will draw attention to the special significance of river culture in the Yushu region.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

The Yushu River School is a collaborative venture of China Rivers Project (CRP), a US-based non-profit organization, and Last Descents River Expeditions, a China-based commercial river trip operator. Both were founded in 2007 as the outcome of a seminal river trip on a stretch of China’s Mekong River now inundated by a reservoir.

In 2006, while CRP Director Kristen McDonald was conducting PhD research in western Yunnan Province, she met Travis Winn, an expert boater who had been exploring rivers in China since 2003. Travis and Kristen experienced a collective “defining moment” when they decided to organize a farewell trip on the Mekong’s Yongbao Gorge, now the site of the Xiaowan Dam reservoir. The trip brought together members of China’s conservation community, local government tourism officials, and US river enthusiasts. Trip participants urged Kristen and Travis to continue to organize trips on China’s endangered canyons, and to use these trips to educate Chinese people on their unique river heritage. Shortly thereafter, together with a local businessman in Yunnan Province, Travis founded an education and conservation-oriented raft company, Last Descents River Expeditions. Travis and Kristen then co-founded CRP, a US-based non-profit, to facilitate fundraising, conservation research, and outreach to US collaborators.

Last Descents and CRP have organized dozens of successful educational rafting trips in China. These trips, and the rivers that we visit, have been featured on China Central Television and other channels, and major newspapers and magazines. We have conducted trips with leading conservation organizations, prominent business leaders, and government officials. The Yushu Rivers School concept came to fruition through our long term outreach efforts in Yushu. Since our first trip in the region in 2006, we recognized the potential of Yushu to develop into China’s adventure rafting center. The silver lining of the devastating earthquake is that local planners are now dedicated to rebuilding Yushu as an ecotourism hot spot, and are eager to employ best practices of sustainable development. Thus the Yushu Rivers School is a timely and synergistic response to a call for specific ecotourism approaches that will work for the communities and ecology of the area.

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

Two social innovators are behind the Yushu Rivers School. Kristen McDonald is founder and Director of China Rivers Project. She has spent a total of five years working and studying in China, first as an English teacher, then as a PhD student researching water management, and now as Director of China Rivers Project. Kristen began working as a river guide in Oregon while in high school. She attended Yale University, and following a two-year teaching position in China, she moved to Washington, DC to work for American Rivers. While directing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program at American Rivers, Kristen developed and promoted a new tool for river conservation. She worked with resource agencies across the country to protect rivers based on a new type of local-state-federal partnership. Through her work, several new rivers received permanent federal protection. Kristen began graduate school in 2002 at the University of California at Berkeley, with the goal of strengthening her understanding of Chinese river management in order to do river conservation work in China. Among other projects, in 2010 Kristen designed and led a survey research project on rafting operations and raft tour participants in China, the first research of its kind.

Born in Grand Junction, Colorado, Travis Winn grew up on the rivers of the American southwest, eventually working as a river guide in Grand Canyon National Park. Starting at the age of sixteen, he has led dozens of river trips on the rivers of western China. He received a BA from the University of Oregon’s Honors School, participating in an innovative Chinese language immersion program. In 2007, Travis co-founded with a Chinese business partner Last Descents River Expeditions, the first company licensed in China to conduct multi-day river trips in western China. Prior to Last Descents, expedition rafting companies operating in China were based outside of China and catered exclusively towards foreign clientele. Travis’s company reaches out to an untapped market – the rising middle class in China. Last Descents is unique in that it was founded in part to facilitate the development of a more rational permit system for river tourism in China, which will benefit not just Last Descents but also other river tourism operators. Travis worked for months with local business leaders, regulators and lawyers in China to ensure the company’s legal and political success.

Both Travis and Kristen read, write, and speak Chinese.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Through another organization or company

If through another, please provide the name of the organization or company

Earth Island Institute