Wanderlust is a regular series where we speak with a notable individual from the travel industry.
If you want to start a conversation with Alvin Liu, just say the word ‘panda.’ When he was working in the commercial aviation industry, Liu took advantage of discounted flight tickets and traveled to Chengdu back in 2012. It was in the province’s capital city where he tried spicy Sichuan cuisine, met his future wife and discovered a passion for the cuddly creatures. Two years later, Liu moved to Chengdu to pursue a career in tourism, and founded My Panda Tour. Below, Liu shares his thoughts on giant panda conservation and panda diplomacy.
You’ve created a company that profits on panda power. In what ways do you give back to these loveable bears?
Conservationism is at the core of My Panda Tours. We’re lovers of all things nature and the environment. Our focus is on saving the vulnerable giant panda species, but we believe this means touching every aspect of Mother Nature. When you visit you’ll see our devotion to Mother Earth, everything from recycling on our tours to giving back to the local community by taking our tour groups out to dine and shop at the areas around the panda bases. We also donate to panda programs around the world.
My Panda Tour Founder Alvin Liu. Image provided by Alvin Liu
The panda base camps [in Chengdu] offer a chance for research, as well as mating programs to get giant pandas back into the wild. Our community has high expectations of the panda bases that are in charge of all captive pandas in the repopulation effort. Of course, many challenges still lay ahead; from continually improving the well-being of captive giant pandas to enriching their gene pool and creating a more ‘giant’ giant panda reserve to boost the wild population.
Overall, I think communication is the key to understanding each other and I believe we’re really making a difference, along with our community, which is leading to an improvement in the well-being of our favorite lovable bears.
How do you provide a fun and educational panda experience to tourists?
It doesn’t take long to fall in love with a panda and most become a super fan after listening to all the fun and educational stories. A lot is learned from the questions our tour groups ask along the way, which further enriches our collective engagement as a community. Our guides love to find out our tourists’ points of view. The discussions can go very far and deep, spanning everything from the pandas to each other’s cultures. So it’s a two-way street rather than us ‘teaching and preaching.’
We also often update our newsfeeds with panda content and host fun events for our followers. Recently, we threw a birthday party on Facebook Live for the American-born panda Tai Shan. They appreciate seeing the pandas live, even after returning home. It always brings back their good memories of the visit or a panda that may have been born in the country.
As we’d presume, you’re likely a giant panda fan (no pun intended). Do you think panda diplomacy and the renting out of pandas has helped or harmed the species?
One-hundred percent. I used to visit Wu Wen a lot. You could say she was my first panda love. She was born at the Bifengxia Panda Base in 2013. She is a beautiful female panda who loves to tumble and roll on the grass. She was sent to the Netherlands in 2017. It was hard to say goodbye.
I truly believe in the panda diplomacy program. Not only has it helped the world to understand the giant panda better, but all the nuances that go into the repopulation effort to save the species for generations to come. I would not suggest long-distance flights for pandas that are old or ill. But people appreciate living in the same city with one these special creatures, and the young bears are fit for such journeys.
Most cities that participate in the program fall in love with the pandas born at their local facilities. I really believe this raises awareness, which has many benefits in the long-term protection of the species.
What makes Chengdu the panda capital of the world?
The natural habitat first and foremost. Also, the whole city gets behind the pandas, with fun panda-themed elements that can be found everywhere in Chengdu. The city’s most famous landmark is a giant climbing panda sculpture on Chengdu’s Chunxi Road, and the world’s only panda-themed KFC restaurant sits right across street. Panda-themed subway trains are available, and unique panda post offices offer travelers postcards stamped with the panda logo in various forms to send to family and friends. But the most exciting part, of course, are the real pandas.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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[Cover image via Pixabay]