And Finally

Too much transparency

Government orders safety review after building binge of glass bridges


Don’t look down: the skywalk across the grand canyon of Zhangjiajie

There are 2,300 of them across China: they’re transparent, rather terrifying and, if the reports are to be believed, not totally safe.

Glass-bottomed bridges – many of them suspended across scenic ravines – were supposed to be a terrific tourist attraction, generating income for the authorities that ran them.

But the bridge-building boom, which began about eight years ago, is now over, due to safety concerns.

Earlier this year the Ministry of Tourism and Culture quietly issued a notice ordering a safety review of all glass bridges and walkways. Province by province the crossings have been closing as local governments try to work out how to evaluate their safety.

Part of the problem, according to Jiemian, is that there is no national standard for the construction of these walkways.

Some are very probably dangerous; others simply have no way of proving that they are safe (short of asking the BBC to try them out; see WiC330 for the invitation that one of its correspondents received to sledgehammer a bridge’s glass floor). Rather than take a risk, most have opted to shut down.

“The government has asked us to rectify these structures but it hasn’t provided any guidelines,” confided an official in Hebei to the Beijing News. Last week authorities closed 32 of the glass bridges in the province.

The walkways started to be constructed across the country when the central government directed local officials to grow their economies through tourism. Very quickly they became must-have attractions with local authorities competing to build higher, longer and more spectacular structures.

Some of the newest bridges are more than 500 metres in length. Other projects have made more of an effort to thrill their visitors. Glass-bottomed slides have been built through vertiginous gorges, while a cliff-side walkway in Hebei even introduced special effects that made it look and sound as if the glass was cracking under the visitors’ feet.

Inevitably, many of these structures were built by firms without the relevant experience, experts say. And it didn’t take long for problems to emerge. In 2015 a bridge in Henan had to close after a tourist dropped his thermos, causing one of the crossing’s glass panels to shatter. In other cases rockfall from mountain overhangs and visitor overcrowding has caused cracking.

Two visitors have already died traversing glass structures.

There’s also evidence that these projects don’t always deliver the tourism windfalls that their backers expect. Visitor numbers are often good in the first year but then they dwindle as the novelty effect starts to diminish. This trend will intensify as more glass-bottomed bridges are built, warned the Beijing News

“The homogenisation of tourism is an old problem. In the case of glass bridges, it’s just a new thrill that will soon wear off ,” it said.

The newspaper also echoed the concern of tourism experts and ecologists who say that projects like these are compromising the natural beauty of the surrounding areas. “In the end, these bridges just ruin our landscape” one concluded.

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