With or without foreigners, tourism grows in Tibet

By Gillian Wong

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this June 20, 2009 file photo, tourists walk through the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama before he fled Tibet after a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, China. Tibet is seeing a boom in Chinese visitors, meaning that the government's latest ban on foreigners following self-immolation protests against Beijing's rule has barely dented the region's tourism industry.

Greg Baker, File, Associated Press

BEIJING — Tibet is seeing a boom in Chinese visitors, meaning that the government's latest ban on foreigners following self-immolation protests against Beijing's rule has barely dented the region's tourism industry.

The Chinese government typically closes Tibet to foreigners during periods of unrest, and tourism of any kind plummeted after riots against ethnic Chinese in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in 2008. But domestic tourists are still allowed, and the government has wooed them in recent years with deep price cuts, direct flights and more train services.

Hotels catering to Chinese tourists in Lhasa are doing brisk business. With its pristine, yak-grazed grasslands and snowcapped mountains, the Tibetan plateau provides a stunning getaway for many urban-dwellers.

"I was attracted by the natural environment here. The blue sky, clean air and water make me feel like I am really enjoying life here," said Feng Junyuan, 26, a freelance editor from the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou who was reached by phone at a hostel in Lhasa.

Staff from restaurants around the Potala Palace, once home to the long-exiled Dalai Lama, say their tables have been filling up with Chinese tourists, chatting and snapping photos during their feasts.

"The pace of life is slow and the people are pure and it is totally different from what we see in big cities like Beijing and Guangzhou," Feng said, adding that he visited several monasteries during his trip. "Some days, I can spend three hours just sitting quietly on the corner of a street here."

A Tibet tourism policy targeting domestic travelers who are less likely to sympathize with anti-Beijing sentiment reflects China's desire to both develop the region economically in hopes of winning over its ethnic Tibetan population and keep a lid on embarrassing reports of unrest.

The most recent ban on foreigners came after a wave of self-immolation protests reached the Tibetan capital late last month, although the government has not publicly acknowledged the restrictions.

"I suppose that they don't want any presence in the case of protests or more self-immolations," said Andrew Fischer, a China expert at the Institute of Social Studies at the Hague in the Netherlands. "They're going back to old-school, old-style control over foreigners to control information. I suppose they don't feel the same threat from the Chinese public."

State media has said international travelers are continuing to visit Tibet each day while the Tibet Tourism Bureau says foreign tourists are still welcome.

However, tour companies and hotel operators in Lhasa said Chinese authorities imposed a ban on travel permits for foreign tourists starting this month.

"We were told by company management not to receive foreign tourists since June 1, no matter whether they are coming individually or in groups," said a man surnamed Liu who works at the China International Travel Service in Lhasa.

Though the foreign tourists are missed by some businesses — especially high-end ones — they now amount to a tiny portion of the overall visits, given the surge of Chinese tourists.

Foreigners accounted for just 30,000 of the 1.45 million visitors to Tibet in the first five months of this year — or around 2 percent of all tourists, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing the Tibet Tourism Bureau.

"I don't think that small, very marginal loss (from foreign tourists) would be of any importance to them in the larger strategic picture of what they're trying to do," Fischer said.

The past year's wave of more than three dozen self-immolation protests against Chinese rule did not erupt inside heavily policed Tibet itself, but in ethnic Tibetan parts of other provinces in China. It finally reached Lhasa in late May when two men set themselves on fire in the popular Barkhor market.