Tourism is seen by the Chinese government as a way to bring money and development to chronically poor Tibet. The $4.2 billion high-speed rail project that opened in 2006 and carries travelers from Beijing or Shanghai to Lhasa in about two days lies at the heart of that goal.

Tourism is a pillar industry in Tibet. Tourism revenue accounts for over 20 percent of the region's gross domestic product (GDP). More than 330,000 people in Tibet, or 11 percent of its population, work in the tourism industry, the regional tourism bureau said. The June-September period is high season for Tibet. In the winter, the price of entrance tickets to major attractions has been slashed by 50 percent to boost arrivals. Many hotels offer discounts of up to 60 percent during the time. The number of tourists traveling to Tibet grew on average 30 percent annually between 2008 and 2014. [Source: Xinhua]

A report issued by the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Center in March 2009 said Tourism made up 5.7 percent of the region's GDP in 2008, compared with 0.2 percent in 1990. Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian: Authorities see developing tourism as crucial to the economic future of Tibet. But Tibetan groups have expressed concern that the surge in tourism has also eroded traditional culture and that the income has economically benefited Han Chinese more than Tibetans. China began construction of its fifth airport in Tibet — in Tibet’s second largest city, Shigatse — in April 2009 in an effort to boost tourism there. [Source: Xinhua News Agency March 31, 2009; Tania Branigan, The Guardian, July 6, 2012]

Tibet opened to tourists in 1984. For a while tourists could freely go where they wanted as long as the could work out the transport. At that time many of Tibet’s religious sites were still in ruins after the Cultural Revolution. Because reporters are often barred from entering Tibet, foreign tourists are often the only source of information of what is going inside the region. Some tourists have gotten in trouble for their politics. In the mid 1990s, two American tourists were interrogated for four days after they gave a monk a tape recording of a speech by the Dalai Lama. Other copies of the tape and pictures of the Dalai Lama were impounded, and the Americans were deported to Nepal. [Source: New York Times]

Tourism Numbers in Tibet

More than 95 per cent of tourists to Tibet are Chinese. Around 35 million tourists visited Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR, Tibet] in 2020, 10 times the population of Tibet. The vast majority were mainland Chinese travelers, Foreign visitor accounted for only 270,000 of the total in 2019, according to a Chinese government report. The Tibetan region, which includes parts of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu Provinces hosted close to 160 million tourists in 2021, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. and this was during the coronavirus pandemic. [Source: Matthew Loh, Business Insider, June 16, 2021; Associated Press, August 19, 2021]

More than 15 million tourists visited TAR in 2014, up more than 20 percent from 2013, according to the local government. A record 3.15 million people arrived by air. Most of the rest came by train. The China Daily reported: “Lhasa alone saw more than 9.25 million tourists and reaped tourism revenue of 11.2 billion yuan ($1.79 billion), said the regional tourism bureau in a report. Traditional Tibetan festivities, such as the Horse-racing Festival and the Shoton Festival, the highlight of which is the "sunning of the Buddha" ceremony in the 600-year-old Drepung Monastery, have proved to be major attractions. Lhasa saw 1.4 million tourists during the week-long Shoton Festival in June. Tibet is expected to welcome 17 million tourists in 2015 as the local government vows to improve services and develop family inns in its rural villages. [Source: Xinhua, January 11, 2015]

A record 12.91 million tourists visited TAR in 2013. The People’s Daily reported: “The total number of tourists visiting the region surged 22 percent year on year with a rise in visitors from overseas, said Wang Songping, an official with the regional tourism bureau. More than 223,000 overseas tourists visited the region in 2013, up 14.5 percent year on year. Tibet's revenues in the tourism sector increased by 30.6 percent year on year to 16.51 billion yuan (2.72 billion U.S. dollars), Wang said. He attributed the rise to nationwide promotional efforts, improved transportation access and an increasing number of individual trips. Tibetan Buddhism heritage sites, such as Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Zhaxi Lhunbo Monastery, remain the most popular tourist attractions. [Source: Xinhua, February 2, 2014]

In 2011, the number of Chinese tourists to Tibet jumped 27 percent to 8.4 million while that of foreign tourists grew 19 percent to 270,800, bringing in 9.7 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in tourism revenues, official statistics show. The number of visitors to the region rose by a quarter in the first half of 2012. The tourism bureau has said Tibet expects 10 million tourists in 2012, with tourism revenues growing to 12 billion yuan. [Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, June 13, 2012]

A record 4 million tourists visited Tibet in 2007, a 60 percent jump from the previous year, bringing in $650 million, a 70 percent jump from the previous year. Much of the increase was attributable to the new train. This increase was so high, abrupt and unexpected that the Chinese government had to order hundreds of new tour buses. In 2004, 1.22 million tourists visited Lhasa, 92 percent of them were Chinese, many of whom came from big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. In 2002, 720,000 Chinese tourists visited Tibet, a 30 percent increase from 2001, and 140,00 foreign tourist visited, a 2.4 percent increase. Only 47,000 came in 1987.

Tourism and Development in Tibet

Pargor Street in downtown Lhasa, which surrounds Jokhang Temple, was renovated in the early 2010s. Vendors of various ethnic groups used to crowd the street, blocking the way to the temple. More than 3,000 stalls were relocated by November 2013 to the Pargor Commercial Building, making the temple more accessible by tourists. In 1998, the Ninth TAR Five-Year-Plan announced tourism as a “pillar industry”. Since then Lhasa has been transformed into a major destination. Analysts report that much of the revenue from tourism leaves the region to go back into China. The dramatic increase in tourism since the opening of the Tibet railway in 2006 has been especially acute at Lhasa’s historic cultural sites, such as the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple in the Barkhor area, and the Dalai Lama’s former summer palace, the Norbulingka. [Source: Save Tibet, July 2013 +]

According to Save Tibet: “While the Chinese authorities are marketing Tibet as a tourist destination based on the spiritual attractions of its Buddhist culture and landscape, Beijing has tightened its control over Tibetan religious expression and practice. Tibetan Buddhism is an integral element of Tibetan identity and Tibetan nationalism, and is therefore perceived as a potential threat to the authority of the state and ‘unity’ of the PRC. The authorities’ commodification of Tibetan culture and promotion of ‘Tibet chic’ coincides with a trend towards increasing repression of Tibetan cultural identity and a crackdown of unprecedented depth and scope. In a reflection of this development, in China’s new national Tourism Law, which came into force on October 1, 2013, there is almost no mention of host communities, designated in the Tourism Law not as people but as places. Article 41 states tour guides must “respect the customs and religious beliefs” not of local Tibetans, but “of the tourists”. +\

Development economist Andrew Fischer wrote in 2005: “Most of the tourists visiting the TAR [Tibet Autonomous Region] are Chinese nationals and they mostly stay in Chinese-owned and -run hotels on the west side of Lhasa, close to an abundant supply of Chinese restaurants and entertainment centers, complete with Chinese brothels and Chinese sex workers, who obviously service the military personnel and cadres stationed there as well. It is likely that much of the revenue that such tourism generates is channeled through such venues and eventually out of the province altogether. Under such conditions, the tourism industry will have a difficult time functioning as a self-sustaining pillar industry that accumulates capital and profits in the TAR, rather than servicing as another drain from which incoming resources flow back out of the province almost as fast as they enter.” [Source: “State Growth and Social Exclusion in Tibet’by Andrew Fischer, NIAS Press, 2005]

Tourism in Tibetan Areas

In Tibetan areas of Yunnan, rather than suppress Tibetan culture the Han Chinese try to exploit it to make money, calling the area Shangri-la and building hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants and luring tourists. On a proportional basis more jobs are taken by Tibetans here than in Lhasa and tensions between the Tibetans and Chinese seem mild. The Tibetan village of Napa near Shangri-La is a center of Tibetan eco-tourism.

In Yunnan Tibetans have a direct hand in the tourism industry, running trekking companies and restaurants. An NGO runs a programs for rural children teaching them English and basic skills so they can get jobs. Many of the Chinese are poets and hippy types who want to escape the rat race and lvie in a place fresh air and beautiful scenery and a more likley to be open to Tibetan culture.

Reporting from Jiaju, China Mitch Moxely wrote in the Asian Times,”In 2005, the National Geographic China magazine named this ethnic Tibetan village in western Sichuan province, sprawled over a valley amid snow-capped mountains, China's most beautiful. Depending on how you look at it, that distinction was either a blessing or a curse. During the national day holiday in October, middle-class Chinese tourists from Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, and beyond, literally crawl over this "Model Tibetan Village", as a regional brochure puts it. For an entrance fee of 30 yuan (US$4.48), tourists wander through locals' multi-storey stone homes and pose for pictures on rooftops decorated with drying corn. [Source: Mitch Moxley, Asia Times, October 29, 2010]

On almost every rooftop, alongside faded Tibetan prayer flags, flies the red and yellow flag of the People's Republic of China. "It's beautiful," a young woman from Chengdu, visiting with five friends, says of the village. "It's not that famous yet, like Shangri-la or Lijiang, but it's getting more popular." Shangri-la and Lijiang are among the most popular tourist destinations in China's southwest.

The village of Jiaju has no doubt benefited as a result of tourism - there are few signs of poverty and many villagers own new cars and sports utility vehicles. But tourism has also impacted the surrounding environment and changed the fabric of the village. Indeed, Jiaju embodies many of the issues China's minority regions face as the country's internal tourism industry grows.

In 2006, Sichuan native Yang Xiaohui opened his first guesthouse - called Denba, after the adopted Tibetan name Yang now goes by - and aimed it at the Chinese backpacker and long-distance cyclist. In fewer than five years, his business has grown from that first hostel, in Dardo (Kangding) in Kandze, to 13 budget guesthouses: two in Tibet, one in Yunnan and 10 in Sichuan. "My guests see Tibet as a sacred place," says 34-year-old Denba. "They admire the religion." [Source: Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

Chinese Tourists in Tibetan Areas

More than 95 per cent of tourists to Tibet are Chinese. Stefan Halper and Lezlee Brown Halper wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In Beijing, tour operators sell tickets to Tibetan Buddhism's most sacred religious sites as though they are part of an amusement park. At the Jokong Temple, for example, pilgrims still come from great distances to prostrate themselves each morning along the six-tenths-of-a-mile-long stone path around the temple. But Chinese tourists come too, dutifully having their tickets stamped at each stop on their Tibetan tours as they gawk at the ancient rituals. This booming tourist industry steadily drains the gravitas from Tibet's deep socio-religious rhythms, but it hasn't yet killed them. [Source: Stefan Halper and Lezlee Brown Halper, Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2014; Stefan Halper is director of American studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Lezlee Brown Halper is a research associate at Corpus Christie College, Cambridge. They are the authors of "Tibet: An Unfinished Story."]

Mitch Moxely wrote in the Asian Times, “As Chinese grow wealthier and become better traveled, many are seeking more authentic experiences than tour groups can offer. These tourists, armed with Gore-Tex outerwear and telephoto camera lenses, are beginning to visit China's remote regions - many populated by minority groups - including Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet. [Source: Mitch Moxley, Asia Times, October 29, 2010]

Wang Huigui, who works for an international company in Beijing, is an example of this new breed of traveler. Wang, who calls himself a "lao lu" - seasoned traveler - travels solo and has been to Sichuan's Tibetan region five times, and Tibet proper four times.

"I come every year to these areas. I like taking pictures," Wang says atop an ancient Tibetan tower in the town of Zhong Lu, a less-traveled village about 20 minutes drive from Jiaju. "I'm very interested in China's minorities - their history, their culture, their language."

Li Fei, a manager at state-controlled China Shan-Shui Travel Agency, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Land and Resources, says interest in trips to the Tibetan Autonomous Region had skyrocketed in recent years. He says the agency receives up to 70 and 80 applications to visit Tibet every day, and will accommodate about 2,000 tourists a year.

"They love Tibet," Li says. "The feedback we get is very positive. They think the lakes and sky are really clean."

Increasingly Tibet is attracting Chinese hippies and dropouts and Lhasa has sort of become China’s answer to Goa. Some Chinese have even adopted Tibetan names. One Chinese hippie told the Washington Post, “In Beijing, in Shanghai, it’s all about materialism...But here, its different. There’s a different culture and different values and I think we can learn from it.” One tourist slogan aimed at Chinese tourist reads: “Take a Trip to the Holy Land.”

Tibet Becomes Fashionable Among Chinese

Tibet is a popular tourist destination for Chinese. Chinese tourists dress up in Tibetan costumes and have their picture taken in front of Tibet’s most sacred sights. For some Chinese, Tibetan culture has become kind of hip. They read Tibetan Buddhist texts; make offerings at Tibetan temples in Lhasa; and seek blessings and the touch of the Dalai Lama. Some say this is so because the lives of Chinese are spiritually empty. Other say it is because it is fashionable in Hollywood. Yet others say it because Tibetan Buddhism is associated with Tantric sex.

Increasingly Tibet is attracting Chinese hippies and dropouts and Lhasa has sort of become China’s answer to Goa. Some Chinese have even adopted Tibetan names. One Chinese hippie told the Washington Post, “In Beijing, in Shanghai, it’s all about materialism...But here, its different. There’s a different culture and different values and I think we can learn from it.” One tourist slogan aimed at Chinese tourist reads: “Take a Trip to the Holy Land.”

Han Chinese that are interested in Tibetan Buddhism are also taking an interest in Tibet. One elderly Han Chinese woman told the Washington Post, “Tibet is the only pure land left in the world, and I worry about its culture. For example if we over-develop Qinghai Lake tourism, will garbage and plastic pollute the environment? Will plain people be seduced by money? If I didn’t study Tibetan Buddhism, I would know little about Tibet.”

Chinese Travelers to Tibet

Dinah Gardner wrote in the South China Morning Post, “When her best friend died from leukaemia last year, Ran Jing made a promise to herself; she would travel to Tibet as soon as she graduated from high school. Her classmate had been a Buddhist, and it had been her dream to see Lhasa. A few months after her 18th birthday, Ran set off alone from her home in Henan province, taking buses and sharing cars, on a pilgrimage to the Tibetan capital in memory of her friend. "I'm doing this for her," she says, breaking her inbound trip in a youth hostel in Xinduqiao, a small town in Kandze (Ganzi in Chinese), an autonomous Tibetan prefecture in western Sichuan. [Source: Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

Ran was just one of tens of thousands of young Chinese tourists who visited Tibet in the summer of 2011. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but the Tibet Tourism Bureau reports that 2.25 million tourists visited the Tibet Autonomous Region in the first half of the year, up almost 25 per cent year on year. The entire population of the region is just under three million. The bulk of these tourists were domestic; foreigners require a special permit to enter Tibet and were banned in March, June and July.

National Highway 318, which links Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, with Lhasa, saw flocks of Han Chinese pedalling their way to Tibet, sometimes their bicycles appearing to outnumber vehicles on the road. These spiralling tourist statistics are also reflected in the success of local hostels.

The most obvious draw for the increasing number of young Chinese visitors is, of course, the region's natural beauty. Alpine grasslands, fresh air, snow-capped mountains and spiritual mystique hold a special attraction for the new urban rich who have grown up in crowded, polluted cities.

"Lhasa is one of the top tourism destinations for Chinese travellers," says Zhou Qinwen, 35, from Shanghai, who spent two months travelling around Tibet this summer. "It has blue skies, white clouds, mysterious Tibetans and architecture."I was tempted to go after looking at other travellers' postings and photos on the internet. Those photos were beautiful. I was spellbound. When I got there, it was beyond my expectations." Others say they are intrigued by the spirituality, honesty and generosity of the people.

During the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010), Tibet generated an income of 22.6 billion yuan ($3.5 billion) by attracting 21 million visitors, growing 29.8 percent a year on average. In 2010, tourism revenue made up 14.1 percent of Tibet's GDP. [Source: Dachong and Peng Yining, China Daily, September 12, 2011]

Attraction of Tibet to Chinese Travelers

Xiong (he requests that only his first name be used), from Wuhan, in Hubei province, is 22 years old. He cycled from Chengdu to Lhasa alone, inspired by a story a friend had told him. "My friend was on a bus in Tibet when they stopped in a village," he explains. "A little girl came on board and gave the driver 1,000 yuan [HK$1,200], and asked him to pass it to her brother in the next village. That driver didn't know the girl or her brother, but he drove to the next village, found the right guy and gave him the money. That couldn't possibly happen in my city. I cherish this kind of trust.

"Tibetans have Buddha in their hearts, but we Han people don't have any religion, and this is frightening. I'm beginning to believe in Buddhism myself now."

It's not just in tourist figures that a growing fascination for Tibet and its culture can be seen. He Ma's The Tibet Code, a series of thrillers, is a long-standing favourite read; Kora (Zhuan Shan), a Chinese film about a young man cycling to Lhasa in memory of his dead brother, opened in mainland cinemas on November 3; and a growing number of Han are converting to Tibetan Buddhism. Thousands of Han students study at the sprawling Buddhist Institute in Serthar (Seda), in the north of Kandze.

Wang Huigui, who works for an international company in Beijing, is an example of this new breed of traveler. Wang, who calls himself a "lao lu" - seasoned traveler - travels solo and has been to Sichuan's Tibetan region five times, and Tibet proper four times. "I come every year to these areas. I like taking pictures," Wang says atop an ancient Tibetan tower in the town of Zhong Lu, a less-traveled village about 20 minutes drive from Jiaju. "I'm very interested in China's minorities - their history, their culture, their language." [Source: Mitch Moxley, Asia Times, October 29, 2010]

Tibetan Drifters

Increasingly Tibet is attracting Chinese hippies and dropouts and Lhasa has sort of become China’s answer to Goa. Some Chinese have even adopted Tibetan names. One Chinese hippie told the Washington Post, “In Beijing, in Shanghai, it’s all about materialism...But here, its different. There’s a different culture and different values and I think we can learn from it.” One tourist slogan aimed at Chinese tourist reads: “Take a Trip to the Holy Land.”

The fascination with Tibet has led to the coining of a new term, zang piao ("Tibet drifter"), which describes someone who leaves urban life to temporarily hang out in Tibet in search of their own Shangri-la. Zang piao can be compared to those young Westerners who flock to India in search of spiritual meaning. [Source: Dinah Gardner, South China Morning Post, November 20, 2011]

However, for Beijing-based Tibetan writer-poet and activist Tsering Woeser, Han admirers of Tibet - particularly the zang piao - lack even a basic understanding of her culture. In a piece she wrote in 2011 for Radio Free Asia, translated by London-based Tibet blog High Peaks Pure Earth, she says: "As for the currently quite popular 'Tibet drifters' and those middle-class inland people who call Tibet a 'spiritual home' ... those people are in fact quite unfamiliar with the suffering Tibetans endure; perhaps they are even totally oblivious to suffering.

"I have encountered those 'Tibet drifters' sitting at the main entrance of Jokhang Temple [Lhasa's main temple] laughing, giggling and snuggling up to each other. Cigarettes dangle from their lips; they drink beer and sunbathe while watching Tibetans prostrating ... they also go and prostrate a few times as if it was just some kind of game, just some type of popular amusement."

Affects of Tourism on Tibet

In her book “The New Chinese Revolution” , Lynn Pan: "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Tibetan culture, which has survived the worst that Maoism and force could do to stamp it out, has been left to be killed by tourism."

See Lhasa

Melinda Liu wrote in Newsweek: "The 1000-room Potala is now surrounded by hairdressing salons, chain-smoking prostitutes and karaoke bars blaring Madonna music. Streets that once housed traditional Tibetan teas shops have given way to rows of greasy Chinese eateries...near the Potala is a solar-powered radio and TV station that broadcasts Communist Party propaganda in Tibetan."

The domden, or undertaker class, is not smitten with tourist who come to Tibetan sky burial sites to photograph bodies being chopped up and fed to the vultures. On the wall of some monasteries are strips of film ripped out of camera of tourist who were not supposed to take pictures.

In 2003, Beijing fired 150 Tibetan tour guides because of suspicions about their political views.

Down Side of Chinese Tourism in Tibetan Areas

Mitch Moxely wrote in the Asian Times, “In China, however, appreciation of minority cultures can quickly turn to exploitation... In places like Jiaju, a Disneyland-like atmosphere persists, and the local culture adjusts to fit Han preconceptions. Jiaju, once an isolated mountain village, was introduced to the world aftera 1998 visit by a Hong Kong traveler, who persuaded a local family to turn their home into a guesthouse. Within a few years, dozens of neighbors followed suit, converting their homes or building new hostels from scratch. [Source: Mitch Moxley, Asia Times, October 29, 2010]

Soon, tour buses began clogging the winding road to town. Logging and home-building stripped the surrounding mountainside, bringing dangerous landslides. Trash began piling up in ditches around town.

He Ming, the director of Yunnan University's Research Center of Ethnic Minorities in China's Southwest Frontier, says increased tourism helps foster development of minority regions and increases local incomes. For Han tourists, the experience of visiting minority regions provides a valuable cultural exchange that promotes goodwill between China's different ethnic groups. But He says that governments at the federal and local levels must take steps to protect the rights and interests of the minority cultures, rather than exploit them to accommodate Han tourists.

"These cultures are unique, and an invasion of different cultures will destroy them. Furthermore, with an increasing number of tourists pouring into minority regions, the local governments commercialize the cultures, and even religious practices are changed," He says.

"Every coin has two sides," the tour operator Li says. "Profits from the tourism industry have poured into the minority regions. At the same time, cultural assimilation occurs. We make sure to tell tourists the local customs and taboos before their departure."

Traveling in Tibet

Many tourists have been killed or injured in bus and truck accidents. According to Lonely Planet guide of China, "your safety is entirely at the mercy of the of the vehicle, the driver and the condition of the road surface. Tibetans like to take their minds off these variables by praying, and you'd be wise to do likewise unless you want to end up a gibbering bag of nerves."

China Tibet Mountaineering Association organizes mountain climbing expeditions. In the early 2000s the Tibet Guide School was set up to teach poor Tibetans to do Sherpa-like jobs and guide mountain climber up Mt. Everest. Mountain climbers complain of getting ripped off with high prices for yaks.

Some travelers have reached restricted areas of Tibet along the Indian border by hitching rides with trucks and avoid checkpoints by hiding in the truck when guards approached or getting out before the checkpoint hiking around it and getting back on the truck on the other side.

Hotels and Guesthouses in Tibet

Tibetan guest houses and motels used by locals contain rooms with a few cots and an iron stove with buckets full of sheep pellets for fuel. Some have an outdoor latrine. Some don't even have that. When they are toilets they usually don't work. Guests sometimes use blow torches to cook meals in their rooms.

Cheap guesthouses in Tibet off the beaten track often resemble prisons. There is usually no running water and no electricity at night. The floors are damp; the sheets are smelly. For washing guests are given a pail of water. When there is electricity light comes from bare light bulbs which don't have switches to turn them off. The worst cheap hotels have human excrement and frozen vomit on the staircases from previous guests who thought is was too cold to go outside and use the toilet.

Expensive hotels in Lhasa justify their $200-a-night price tag because they have amenities like oxygen tanks for guests with altitude sickness and firewood, used to boiled tea and make pancakes, brought in from southern forests, a two day truck ride away. At the Hard Yak Café in the Lhasa Holiday Inn you can get a yakburger, fries and coke

Tibet Theme Park

In July 2012,Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian: Chinese officials have announced plans to build a $4.7 billion Tibetan culture theme park outside Lhasa in three to five years. Ma Xinming, deputy mayor of the city, told journalists that the park would cover 800 hectares (1980 acres) on a site just over a mile from the centre. He said it would improve the Tibetan capital's attractiveness to tourists and be a landmark for its cultural industry, state news agency Xinhua reported. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, July 6, 2012]

The mayor said it would include attractions themed around Princess Wencheng — the seventh-century niece of a Tang-dynasty emperor who married a king from Tibet's Yarlung dynasty — whose tale has been embraced by Chinese authorities as a parable of ethnic harmony. The park will include outdoor shows about the princess, along with other educational and entertainment facilities. Business and residential districts would also be included. Ma said the park would also reduce tourist pressure on the Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor in the heart of old Lhasa, helping to protect the city's heritage.

“Officials in China often see theme parks as a way to develop tourism, though many have failed to attract the investment and visitors they anticipated. Whether the Lhasa government ends up building the project on the massive scale envisaged remains to be seen. Professor Robert Barnett, an expert on Tibetan culture at Columbia University, said that while some officials had talked about environmentally and culturally appropriate tourism in Tibet, "this represents a nail in the coffin — symbolically and perhaps practically — of attempts by Tibetans and Chinese to promote that." He added: "To recoup that cost, you have to have tourism on an unimaginable scale.”

“Barnett said Tibetans might well go to the theme park themselves, but would also be likely to question whether it was good for their culture and worth the huge investment. "They are very acutely aware of these issues ... but I am not sure they have any form to ask them publicly," he said.

“Xinhua reported last month that officials have also earmarked more than 400m yuan to develop tourism in Nyingchi prefecture in southeastern Tibet, renowned for its scenic beauty. In addition to creating an international "Swiss-style" tourism town, the schemes will involve building 22 "model villages", where tourists will be able to enjoy homestays. Critics have warned the plan could damage the fragile environment.

Tibet Closed to Tourists in 2011

In the wake of the 2008 unrest, foreign tourists were banned from traveling to Tibet for more than 12 months.

In March 2011, China closed Tibet to tourists ahead of the third anniversary of anti-government in 2008. Zhang Qingli, the Communist party secretary in Tibet, said there were "some control measures" for safety reasons, citing potential overcrowding and freezing winter weather. He told reporters at an annual political meeting in Beijing that the region was stable. "It's not that the anti-Chinese forces and the Dalai clique haven't thought of it but the fact is they haven't been able to stir up any unrest since the March 14 incident." [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, March 7, 2011]

In mid June 2011, foreign tourists were barred from going to Tibet until the end of July."At the moment we're not admitting foreign tourists," an employee at China Travel Service in the regional capital Lhasa told AFP by phone, adding the agency had received a notice saying this would be enforced until July 26. A worker at the Tibet Youth Travel Service agency confirmed the ban, saying it begins on Tuesday and was linked to celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of China's rule over Tibet, scheduled for July. [Source: AFP, June 13, 2011]

Overseas visitors had been able to visit from April to June. The official Global Times newspaper quoted the Lhasa-based manager of a travel website as saying they would not accept tourists holding foreign passports until mid-August due to "safety concerns." Even when foreigners are allowed in, authorities require them to obtain special permits — in addition to Chinese visas — and also travel in tour groups.

Tourism Grows in Tibet Among Chinese Travelers Despite Self-Immolations

Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: “The Chinese government sees tourism as a key way of bringing money into the chronically poor region. After violent riots in 2008 in which Tibetans attacked Chinese migrants and shops, torching parts of Lhasa’s commercial district, the government sealed off the region. Overall tourism that year fell by nearly half, while the number of foreign tourists fell by 80 percent. To try to draw the crowds back, authorities halved prices for tours, hotel rooms and entry tickets for the Potala.

In June 2012 Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: “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. [Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, June 13, 2012]

“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.

China Clamps Down on Foreign Travelers to Tibet

In June 2012, foreigners were indefinitely banned from visiting Tibet, amid the tensions there. Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: “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.” [Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, June 13, 2012]

‘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.

“Photos of a self-immolation in Lhasa’s Barkhor market in May 2012 posted online showed a Western-looking foreigner watching one of the men in a cloud of smoke as others extinguished the flames. The latest foreigner ban started days later. Such bans are usually delivered orally to tourism industry leaders, apparently to avoid issuing documents that could embarrass officials eager to project a sense of calm and control.

“Foreign tourists trying to book Tibet trips over the border from Nepal have been denied permits since May 28, according to travel agent Pradip Pandit in the Nepalese capital, Katmandu. The foreigner ban is hurting Tibet’s handful of luxury hotels, including Lhasa’s Jardin Secret Hotel where rooms go for up to $335 a night. “Our occupancy rate is relatively low at the moment because we don’t have many domestic guests,” said a staffer who gave only his surname, Xu. But many establishments are thriving. All but a fifth of the 80 rooms at the three-star Tibet Mansion in Lhasa are occupied, said an employee surnamed Liu. The hotel’s guests are mostly domestic travelers.

Image Sources: Purdue University, Antique Tibet

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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