When it comes to picking national animals, there is no doubt that China has struck gold in choosing the loveable, ink-eyed, roly poly panda, and the Sichuan province, in the country’s southwest, is the panda's spiritual home. Shops in Chengdu, the capital of the province, and on the outskirts of Jiuzhai Valley (China's most popular national park, attracting some 10,000 visitors a day) are packed with panda paraphernalia, from furry-eared hats to huge panda boxing gloves.

There is only one thing missing -- the pandas.

Uncovered by the Chinese government in the late 1960s and populated only by a handful of tiny Tibetan villages (the local name, Jiuzhaigou, means “Nine Villages Valley”), the remote Jiuzhai Valley was threatened by logging until 1982 when it became one of the country's first protected national parks to preserve the region’s staggering beauty. Midnight blue lakes reflect the huge forested canyons in their flawless waters, crystalline waterfalls flow from the mountain tops and exquisite orchids and rhododendrons weave threads of colour through the greenery of the forest floor. Most importantly, these mountains were covered in bamboo, making Jiuzhai a haven for pandas.

But bamboo is something of a tragic plant -- it only flower once in its lifetime -- and the Jiuzhai Valley bamboo flowered and died in the 1980s, depriving pandas of the food that makes up 99% of their diet. The animals were forced to leave the park and move into the even more remote Min Shan mountains in search of sustenance.

Since then, the only way to see a panda in the Sichuan province has been to visit the Chengdu Panda Reserve -- one of the most important international centres for panda research -- which provides a fantastic opportunity to get up close to the animals and watch them chomping down on bamboo and play fighting. The chance of seeing pandas in the wild – always remote, even when the bamboo was at its height -- was thought to have gone forever.

But slowly and surely, bamboo has started to regrow in Jiuzhai. And in June 2012, a mountain ranger working for the national park authority came across evidence of panda feeding sites within the boundary of the park. Droppings that looked like panda scat were collected and brought back for testing, and the results confirmed that after a gap of 20 years, pandas have begun their return to the valley.

“If pandas do return here in greater numbers they will be returning to a well-protected nature reserve with no threat from logging or poaching,” said Kieran Fitzgerald, a sustainable tourism expert who has worked at the park for the past four years. “Even though Jiuzhai Valley is a popular tourist site, the tourist buses will be far enough away so as not to affect these reclusive mountain dwellers.”

The chances of seeing a panda in the wild at Jiuzhai remain very slim – but there is now at least a chance. “Pandas are very shy, reclusive animals,” said Fitzgerald. “If in the future if they do return in better numbers, it would still be extremely hard for tourists to see them in the wild. But when the time comes, there could be some viewing opportunity through long range telescopes or binoculars – who knows?”

And in any case, there are plenty of other reasons to go to Jiuzhai. Visiting some of the park's Tibetan villages is a fantastic way to learn about the region’s Tibetan culture. Everywhere you look, lines of colourful prayer flags flutter in the breeze and prayer wheels spin as the water flows beneath them.

The local Tibetan people are beginning to adapt to the tourism that the natural beauty of their home has inspired. The road leading to the entrance of the park is lined with the high risechain hotels that are popular with many Chinese tourists, but there are also signs that an alternative, more sustainable approach to tourism is on the rise.

Homestays, such as the one run by local restaurant owner Zhou Ma and her family, enable visitors to get a sense of everyday life within the valley, away from the tourist buses. Zhou Ma's small wooden house, set in a quiet courtyard well away from the main road and painted with brightly coloured Buddhist holy images, has a few bedrooms set aside for visitors, who live with the family, playing ball games with Zhou Ma's young nephew, or enjoying a meal of yak meat, fried vegetables, fresh flat bread and yak's butter tea (the latter being a thick drink made with yak's butter, hot water and barley).  Further afield, at the village of Zhi Ma – reached via a winding two hour drive up through the mountains, past the vast building site of a dam -- plans are afoot for the creation of an entire eco village. Camping sites are being set up near to the village's Buddhist shrine, while a number of the yak herders who live in the village are planning to turn their log cabins into homestays  The isolation and peace here is extraordinary, especially in comparison with the tumult of the area nearer the park – virtually the only sound to be heard is from the lines of prayer flags, fluttering in the mountain winds. The hope is that the return of the panda to this region, if managed carefully, will provide a further boost to this nascent Tibetan tourist industry.