Tourists of the 19th century had Ferris Wheels to freak themselves out. The 20th century had bungee jumping and skydiving. Today, cities in the US, China, and Canada are building permanent glass "skywalks," the longest of which — a 300 metre monster — just opened in Hunan province, China.
Hunan is home to some of the country's most amazing geology and plenty of adventure tourism, thanks to its UNESCO-protected warrens of massive sandstone pillars, complex caves, and forests. It's been a big tourism magnet for a long time, but over the past two years it's become a hotspot for a new form of "adventure:" The glass skywalk.
Skywalks, where a series of strong glass panels are suspended or cantilevered out over a tall cliff or building, are popular everywhere right now: One opened in Canada some 300 metres above a glacier in Jasper National Park in 2011. Chicago installed a glass deck over the edge of the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower in 2009. The Grand Canyon has one too, a curving steel-rimmed U-shape that juts out over the main canyon, which opened in 2007. But China is definitely the leader in this category, and many of its skywalks are being built in Hunan, where tourists visiting its geological wonders are rife.
The Grand Canyon skywalk by AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin. Bottom: Jasper National Park skywalk by Stephanie Payne/Flickr.
The latest of these opened last week in Shiniuzhai, a geology park about an hour outside of Changsha. There, an almost 300 metre long wood and steel footbridge has spanned a valley there for years. But last year, perhaps in order to compete with high-profile glass skywalks elsewhere in Hunan, several of its wooden slats were replaced with inch-thick structural glass.
Over the past few months, the park has replaced all of the wood panels with glass, opening the full glass version of the footbridge on Thursday, according to the Independent. Visitors took selfies and scrambling across the glass in press photos.
ChinaFotoPress and Getty Images
Its length makes it the longest such bridge in existence, though it's got plenty of competition amongst skywalks. In April, a glass cantilever structure, jutting out above 700 metre high cliffs, opened in Longgang, in Shenzhen. And in May, another Hunan geological site, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, opened a 2oo-foot-long glass skywalk that's cantilevered off of the edge of a mountain almost 1.5km above the ground.
It's easy to see the allure of these structures, both in Hunan and other regions of the world where tourists are looking for "adventure" experiences — and parks are looking for low impact ways to sell them. This is well-studied phenomenon: A group of researchers at Bond University in Australia summed up a recent study of fear and tourism thusly:
The results confirm that facing fear or challenge, leading to being intrinsically rewarded, is a main motivator. However, the aspect of fun is still fundamentally important to each activity. The youth traveller market is generally extremely responsive to viral marketing, which (through wording and visuals) creates an image of a "life‐changing experience", "thrilling adventure", and similar.
Skywalks provide the "fear" as well as the Instagram bragging rights, but in bite-sized and relatively low-time-investment way. The technology has quickly progressed to a point where it's feasible to build a skywalk for relatively low costs.
In fact, the biggest liability is usually the shoes of visitors — which leave scuffs, smears, and scratches in the glass. In 2011, the Grand Canyon's 46 panels had to be replaced completely. There are other ways to fight scratching, though they're not perfect either.
At Chicago's Skydeck, engineers spec'd a thin layer of scratch-proof glass atop the structural panels, designed to be replaced every few months. But last year, the thin cosmetic glass cracked while visitors stood on it, scaring the bejesus out of a group posing for a photo.
In Shiniuzhai, the park is taking precautions against scratching, too: Visitors have to wear blue surgical booties. They might not look great in selfies, but it's better than the sensation one visitor in Chicago described last year: "I had my palms on the floor and I could feel it cracking."