Across major dive sites in the Pacific, I heard a particular racism articulated again and again, across ethnicities and nationalities. “Chinese divers can’t swim,” “Chinese divers crush coral,” “Chinese divers only care about the photo.” These comments are, first and foremost, generalized crap. To that last comment in particular, let me say that regardless of ethnicity, inexperienced (and even experienced) divers with GoPros are a real menace on reefs – they get distracted, lose control over buoyancy, and provoke creatures with entitlement. Secondly, that its more a function of increased Chinese tourism in general, a style of tourism which is to my eye as materialistic or consumptive as what one might see here in Playa Blanca, for example. But witnessing the mass dive tourism industry in China on Wuzhizhou (woo-zhgee-joe) Island, I also recognize that there are ways of teaching diving in Sanya that do a disservice to the local environment and clients. Mass tourism and education aren’t conducive to rigorous dive education, and mass Chinese tourism is on the rise.
As the Chinese government eases travel restrictions and the Chinese middle class booms, more and more Chinese citizens are traveling and diving throughout the Pacific and across the globe. In 2015, Chinese expenditures increased by 24% to reach a total of US$279 billion and (UNWTO Tourism Highlights 2015). Chinese reciepts take up 13.2-15.1% of the global market share alone (Ibid). This is one of the major engines behind the Chinese diver stereotype: suddenly, accomodating Chinese divers is a massive market from which local dive industries hope to profit. It’s enough of a market shift that dive operators comment, debate, and discuss. Within China, Hainan is marketed as a world class tropical spot, of which Wuzhizhou is a crown jewel. TNC China is interested in collaborating with Wuzhizhou as its next project site, installing a restoration project that dive tourists will see as part of an educational package. They intend to capitalize on the sheer numbers of people exposed to the marine world through Wuzhizou. As such, I shipped out with Jun, Kemit, Ray, and some of the SCSIS staff for a visit (I was, once again, trapped boatside.)
To get to Wuzhizhou, as most who visit Sanya will, you take a ferry from the Wuzhizhou docks. In the high season, 10,000 people visit this island every day. The docks and ticketing center are covered in paper-mache coral heads and glitter, promising a decadent marinescape just like you imagine. Reportedly, a Taoist priest in the Qing Dynasty built a house on the island after arriving in search of a place to create the “elixir of life”; he’d have a hard time focussing now. Disembarking, large fantastical rodents swarm guests, most of whom have already unsheathed their selfie-sticks, well-prepared. Beyond the Pokemon are golf carts and food stalls, stage after stage for posed photos, brides in Crocs hustling off to their next photo op.
For those who won’t go diving, there is no end to the water-sports on display. I’m tentative to use the term “water-sports” – water jet-packs, artificial surfing, jet skis, and snuba all are more akin to something you’d see at a Consumer Reports Expo than at the Olympics. You can take in extreme sports, pose for photos, eat – generally consume things.
But there are enough divers that even those getting the “VIP Dive Experience” are still being instructed in an almost industrialized process. Their 500 dive instructors conducts 2,500 resort or DSD courses each day (williamcline.com). Divers stream single file to pick up wetsuits, are seated in rows and shown an instructional film, and then single-file shuffled once again onto boats. There, as there’s no time for a swim test, divemasters and instructors hold on to the tanks of two divers at a time and drag them through the water. I’ve done this for Discover Scuba programs where divers struggled to swim, and it is physically and emotionally exhausting. For those who are less interested in the complete scuba experience, you can “Snuba”: a tube attaches to a helmet, letting you breathe as you walk upright along a sandy floor.
Chinese divers aren’t destructive: bad dive instruction is. Jun, Ray, and the SCSIS staff are all talented and experienced. They’re scientists and divers. But the model of dive education permitted through relaxed liability parameters and a broad acceptance of the “chalk and talk” educational system doesn’t set good standards for most divers certified in China. Managers of dive institutions across Southeast Asia discussed the pressure to rush divers through the course to finish in record time, not wanting to deny divers “fun” dives even if they didn’t meet standards. This is the problem for the dive industry as a whole. Dive certifications should absolutely be accessible (in price, in pedagogy, across the board). That doesn’t mean they should be easy.
After a long day checking sites for a potential restoration project, the divers grabbed a bite and debated locations. I sat back. As TNC China expands its marine program, it’s going to need to not only work on education through the installation of projects, but concrete reform of the dive education system. SCUBA certification is a multi-million dollar industry unto itself, and safety standards are established for the sake of litigation, not education. Evaluation of the industry comes from within each certifying agency, which conflicts with actually educating divers thoroughly when you want them certified quickly. Like GreenFins, a non-profit that rates dive operators on environmental practices and helps them improve, I started daydreaming about a task force that takes dive eduvation seriously. Hopefully, restoration-education projects like those installed by TNC are an effective stop-gap until then.
UNWTO Tourism Highlights, 2015 Edition, June 2015 eISBN: 978-92-844-1689-9