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