‘Breathtaking’ is a much overused term when it comes to travel, but there really is no other way to describe the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The term applies both literally and figuratively – Lhasa is located almost 12,000ft above sea level on the Tibetan Plateau, making it one of the highest cities on Earth. Sheltered within a valley among the Nyainqêntanglha Mountains, Lhasa is designated as a holy land by Tibetan Buddhists, while its name translates to ‘place of the gods’. It is home to hallowed monuments such as the Jokhang Temple – a 13,000-year-old place of worship that draws scores of prostrating monks every day – and the Potala Palace, the historic residence of the Dalai Lama that, from its mountaintop position high above Lhasa, seems almost to nestle among the clouds.
If it were located elsewhere, Lhasa’s cultural credentials would no doubt inspire promotional campaigns by opportunistic travel providers and tour operators. “Visit now,” they would proclaim, “before the city loses its unblemished allure.” Tibet’s repressive political situation, however, has prevented it from being marketed in this way: the region’s autonomy has been in dispute for centuries, but particularly since the 1950s, when Chinese Communist Party (CCP) troops were sent in to seize control from the de facto Tibetan Government. Since that time, reports have emerged of a systematic campaign of oppression against the Tibetan people by the Chinese Government in a bid to crush their traditional way of life and assimilate the region, both geographically and culturally, into mainland China.
While Chinese-owned businesses would certainly benefit from an increase in visitor numbers, very little is likely to trickle down to the Tibetan-run local economy
As a consequence, access for foreign travellers has been highly restricted. For at least the past 20 years, tourists have been obliged to apply to the Chinese Government for a special travel permit to visit the region. Other regulations, including the banning of unaccompanied travel within Tibet, were introduced in 2008 following a series of violent protests. Today, it’s impossible to enter the most tightly controlled region of Tibet unless you are on a minded tour organised by a travel agent or guide, who must apply for a permit on behalf of tourists. While obtaining this permit can take up to a month, researchers, diplomats and journalists are frequently turned away altogether.
Fact from fiction
But according to local authorities, this is all about to change. In January this year, Qi Zhala, the chairman of the region, announced plans to increase the number of tourists from 33.7 million in 2018 to 40 million in 2019, as well as to halve waiting times for foreign travel permits. Qi told guests at a week-long travel summit last September: “In terms of policy, projects and funding, we will set up various supporting mechanisms so as to establish tourism as the leading priority industry of the Tibetan Autonomous Region [TAR].”
As is often the case with claims made by the Chinese Government, however, Qi’s statement cannot be taken at face value. According to Dr Andrew Fischer, Associate Professor of Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, part of Erasmus University Rotterdam, successive TAR authorities have been making similar pledges for the past two decades. What’s more, Fischer told Business Destinations: “A lot of these tourist numbers simply don’t make sense based on the existing infrastructure in Tibet.”
In 2010, for example, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China examined Chinese data on tourist arrivals and found that the reported number of train arrivals in Tibet in 2008 exceeded the railway’s carrying capacity. The Washington Post also reported in 2016: “Officials multiply the number of arrivals to Lhasa by a factor of 2.7 or 2.8, calculating ‘an average probability’ to account for the fact that most people visit two or three places.”
Given the prevalence of untrustworthy government data, it’s difficult to determine accurate figures, but anecdotal evidence indicates that tourism is on the rise in the TAR. While some hope this will improve the economic fortunes of the impoverished region, others have raised concerns that much of the revenue derived from the tourism boost is promptly redirected straight back to Beijing through state ownership of businesses within the travel sector. Meanwhile, alarming reports of precious historic sites being adapted or destroyed to cater for visitors have surfaced, leading to fears that if access for international tourists is opened up, there may be no original culture left for them to witness.
The story of the Tibet-China conflict began in the seventh century when, following the fall of the Tibetan Empire, the region was divided into territories. Each had its own political system, but at various times were under the control of Tibetan leaders, tribal groups or Chinese or Mongol overlords. Advocates for Tibetan autonomy claim the region was effectively its own nation during this time, but China’s government maintains it was part of the so-called ‘motherland’.
Tibet retained its autonomous status until 1951, when People’s Liberation Army troops entered the region with the aim of forcing the government, headed by Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama, to sign a statement recognising China’s sovereignty. The same year, the controversial Seventeen Point Agreement was signed, allegedly with resistance, where it was affirmed that China would not alter the existing political system in Tibet. This pledge didn’t last long: in 1959, following an uprising by the Tibetan people, the government was abolished and the Dalai Lama fled to India. The CCP also divided up Tibet’s landmass, designating some as the TAR and subsuming other parts into existing Chinese provinces.
Some have postulated that the authorities’ decision to permit more tourists to enter the Tibetan Autonomous Region is motivated by potential economic gain
Since then, the CCP has reportedly engaged in various strategies that aim to destroy elements of traditional Tibetan culture and exert a high level of control over the Tibetan people. During the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, two key campaigns of the Mao era, Minority Rights Group International estimates that between 200,000 and one million Tibetans were killed, while thousands of monasteries and sacred sites were destroyed.
Today, TAR authorities maintain near-totalitarian control over Tibetan people’s freedom of expression: possessing images of the Dalai Lama is forbidden, while mentioning human rights or questioning China’s rule may result in torture or a prison sentence. In a further show of their bid for assimilation, TAR authorities also favour the transmigration of Han Chinese people, who made up around nine percent of the region’s population in 2010. According to AsiaNews, this figure will increase by 30 percent by 2020.
Given this level of control, it may seem bizarre that TAR authorities – a CCP delegation – are advocating a tourism push. “I would view that promise with scepticism,” an expert in ethnic minorities in China, who wished to remain anonymous in order to protect their research interests in the region, told Business Destinations. “The first order of business of the government is to maintain what they call stability, which means trying to prevent protests, and if protests do happen, trying to curtail information fallout, and restrict anyone from finding out about it, especially internationally. Whatever is said about wait times and permits, it’s likely to be secondary to this ‘stability’ imperative.”
Tibet in numbers
2.5m sq km
of TAR residents were Han Chinese in 2010
Expected increase in Han Chinese residents between 2010 and 2020
This has certainly been the case historically, with the government imposing stricter controls on tourists entering the TAR following protests in the late 1980s in Lhasa, and again on a larger scale in 2008. Even today, the region is closed to visitors during the whole of March, as March 10 marks the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Authorities are concerned about commemorative protests during this time, footage of which could be transmitted to the outside world if witnessed by international tourists.
“It’s a demonstration that the CCP are happy for tourists to come to Tibet, but that it will only be on their terms,” said John Jones, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager for Free Tibet. “It’s a key part of the Chinese Government’s strategy for Tibet that it remains part of China and is kept under strict government control. So I don’t think [the government] would be allowing Tibet to open up if it weren’t confident that it could maintain control over what tourists see and hear.”
Some have postulated that the authorities’ decision to permit more tourists to enter the TAR is motivated by potential economic gain. Despite the fact that it is heavily subsidised by the central Chinese Government, “the TAR is one of the poorest provinces in China”, according to Fischer. Critics and Tibetan exiles claim this is because the CCP strips the TAR of its resources and channels the proceeds into government coffers, a strategy that serves to line Beijing’s pockets while trapping ethnic Tibetans in poverty. This is particularly evident in the tourism industry, which is dominated by state or Han-Chinese-run businesses.
“It’s an economic model that is highly controlled by tour companies that are based in Shanghai, Beijing [and] Chengdu, and hotels owned by Chinese companies,” said Fischer. While these businesses – and, by extension, the Chinese Government – would certainly benefit from an increase in visitor numbers, very little is likely to trickle down to the Tibetan-run local economy.
Moreover, Chinese and state-led businesses have been known to demolish traditional Tibetan homes and shops, as the cultural value of these buildings is seen as secondary to the companies’ economic goals. “In Lhasa, there are places where government and government-supported businesses come in, and they can destroy ancient traditional buildings and old markets, and put in roads, shopping malls, underground parking. [They can] even relocate an entire village and put a big modern square in its place,” the unnamed expert said.
Jones, meanwhile, shared a series of satellite images from Free Tibet’s Destroying Heaven report, which show the destruction of Larung Gar, the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world. The commune is located in Eastern Tibet, in a region known as Kham. Between 2016 and 2017, regional authorities removed 4,800 people from the site and destroyed 4,700 buildings in a bid, Free Tibet claims, to prevent Larung Gar from being used as a religious institution and transform it into a tourist destination instead. In the Destroying Heaven report, sources from the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy noted the installation of staircases with railings to allow easier access to the monastic buildings around Larung Gar, along with the construction of a tarmacked area at the top of the valley for tourists to take photographs.
To avoid perpetuating this destruction of cultural sites, visitors are advised to patronise Tibetan-run businesses wherever possible. “Try to get a Tibetan tour guide, try to work with Tibetan travel agencies – these are people who understand local culture, who can give you a more authentic experience, and who can help you to really respect and understand the religious sites and the religious festivals that you’re seeing,” the unnamed expert told Business Destinations.
This is particularly important in the context of the ongoing ‘Disneyfication’ of the TAR, where Chinese companies have taken over buildings and decorated them to look as idealistically Tibetan as possible, while the original Tibetan owners of these sites have been displaced or had their businesses destroyed. Attractions such as theme parks have also been constructed in recent years on the sites of traditional Tibetan businesses, again in a bid to appeal to tourists.
“It’s important to get past the Disneyfied facade if possible, and the best way to do that is to try and seek out Tibetan-run establishments,” the anonymous expert said. At the same time, it’s vital to be aware that there are certain topics that must be avoided – for example, attempting to engage Tibetan people in discussion about the political situation can prove dangerous for them. Filming or photographing religious festivals or protests, if they occur, can also put participants and tour guides in danger. Jones added: “At every moment, just take the Tibetan people’s needs into account.”
people were forcibly removed from Larung Gar between 2016-17
buildings in Larung Gar were destroyed between 2016-17
Some have questioned the ethics of visiting Tibet at all, citing concerns that by paying for permits or simply being in the region in the first place, tourists are economically and symbolically endorsing the Chinese Government’s repression. “Free Tibet is officially neutral on this, because we recognise the benefits and the risks,” said Jones. “If you’re going just to experience another culture, then it’s a perfectly innocent thing to do. But it’s not the kind of place where you could go wherever you please, or take selfies in front of religious gatherings – you have to tread really carefully to make sure at all times you’re not putting anyone at risk.”
For foreign tourists, visiting Tibet can also be an upsetting experience, due to the unabashed level of surveillance and suppression of freedom that anyone either visiting or living in the TAR faces. “There’s a lot of paranoia, a lot of control – high security, cameras, videos, the whole thing,” said Fischer. “In that sense, it can be an unpleasant experience.”
Chinese companies have taken over buildings and decorated them to look as idealistically Tibetan as possible, while the original Tibetan owners of these sites have been displaced
Fischer suggested visiting eastern areas of Tibet, which have been subsumed into Chinese provinces, instead, as there are far fewer restrictions than in the TAR: “In these Tibetan areas, there are more locally initiated tourist ventures, and you have a greater chance to have a more authentic experience.”
On balance, most do not consider the act of visiting Tibet – and the TAR in particular – to be unethical. If done respectfully, tourists can support economic development for ethnic Tibetan communities, as well as bear witness to the situation there, providing invaluable first-hand insight for campaign groups and academics. “It can [also] be empowering for a group of people who have faced, throughout the last 50 or 60 years, government propaganda that can imply that they’re backward and don’t necessarily have a lot of value in their culture,” the unnamed expert told Business Destinations. “Having people show up, respect [Tibetans], value [them] and want to learn [about them] can be beneficial.”
For the people of Tibet, and for those tourists considering visiting, the future looks certain in some ways and uncertain in others. On the one hand, China’s control of the region appears ironclad, and that is unlikely to change unless there is a larger revolution that severely threatens the communist regime. Even if that does occur, any subsequent Chinese leadership would fight extremely hard to maintain control over Tibet because of the region’s strategic location in relation to countries such as Nepal, Pakistan and India. “[China’s] two wars with India were fought from within the TAR,” said Fischer. “This is part of the reason why the region is so heavily subsidised, so militarised [by China], and why it’s governed with a security mentality… It’s not all because of Tibetans – it’s because of this geopolitical reality.”
On the other hand, despite years of occupation, China’s ideological control over Tibetans is not as entrenched as the authorities would like to believe. “There isn’t blanket patriotism for the Chinese state, [but rather] a lot of solidarity and probably hope for independence, even though most people won’t talk about that so openly,” the unnamed expert said. By visiting the region, supporting Tibetan businesses and bearing witness to the situation on the ground, tourists play a vital part in this resistance, by reassuring Tibetans that their plight will not go unnoticed.