Tough Times for Tibetan Tourism

KUMBUM MONASTERY ~ In the Tibetan areas of northwest China, people whose livelihoods depend on tourism have been hit hard in the aftermath of last year’s protests against Chinese rule.

“I really hope nothing happens again this year,” said a drinks vendor in Kumbum, a hugely popular monastery among tourists to Qinghai province keen to get a glimpse of Buddhist monks in flowing red and saffron robes.

“Business has been bad, as fewer tourists have come,” said the vendor, who refused to be named. He was speaking at the monastery’s entrance, where few visitors could be seen but where many drivers and tour guides were waiting for potential clients.

Riots erupted in Lhasa on March 14 last year after four days of peaceful protests to mark the 49th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising that sent the Dalai Lama, the Himalayan region’s spiritual leader, into exile.

The 50th anniversary of the uprising came on Tuesday, and although there have been no major protests, tensions remain high across the Tibetan plateau, with armed forces on patrol and foreigners banned from many areas.

The drinks vendor’s story is a familiar one across the tourism industry in Tibetan-populated areas of Qinghai and Gansu provinces, with restrictions even tighter inside the Tibet Autonomous Region.

“I used to have about 15 to 20 groups every year,” said one tour guide in Xining, Qinghai’s capital, who also refused to be named for fear of reprisals at this sensitive time.

“Last year, I had two – times are really tough,” he said.

Tibet has long been one of the most romantic tourist destinations in the world, thanks to its spectacular Himalayan scenery, including Mount Everest, and a peaceful Buddhist culture personified by the Dalai Lama.

Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the current tourism woes were partly due to fears among Han Chinese – who represent a large proportion of travellers to Tibetans areas – of more unrest.

“Since March 14, every Tibetan area has been harmed in terms of tourism, and that’s partly because Han people don’t readily distinguish among the Tibetan areas,” he said.

“The place is inhabited by Tibetans, and they are all assumed to be the same in terms of security.”

Foreigners, meanwhile, have had problems getting visas in China, or have decided not to come as many places that were previously open are now off-limits.

In Gansu, for example, the town of Xiahe, famous for its Labrang monastery where a big protest occurred last year, has been closed to foreigners for most of the past 12 months, according to the owner of a cafe there.

It briefly reopened for two months from the end of November, but closed again from the Lunar New Year onwards.

“It’s buried my business – we re-open whenever it goes back to normal, but when it’s closed, there’s virtually no business at all,” said the owner, who refused to be named for fear it would get him in trouble with authorities.

The Tibetan capital Lhasa, where the riots began last year, has also seen its tourism industry heavily affected.

The Chinese government sealed off the city to travellers following last year’s unrest.

Chinese visitors were allowed in again at the end of April, and those from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan in May, but foreigners were not given permission to visit Tibet until the end of June.

Now, travel agencies and others in the hospitality industry say the Tibet Autonomous Region has once again been closed off to foreigners, citing government directives that the region will be sealed off until April.

Creating even more uncertainty for travellers, the government insists that the Tibet Autonomous Region remains open to foreign tourists, despite tour agencies saying they are not allowed to send anyone in.

Lhasa mayor Duoji Cizhu said this month that only 1.4 million people came to the city last year, a 51-percent drop from 2007, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Revenue from tourism, meanwhile, came to 1.2 billion yuan (US$175 million) – a 59-percent drop compared with the previous year.

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