In March I wrote about how foreigners were banned from traveling to Lhasa, and it seems the authorities are denying entry permits to the Tibet Autonomous Region yet again.
In March, the official (read: Chinese government) reason for the ban was the over-crowding of tourists and extreme weather. These were blatant lies, as there were few tourists in Lhasa at the time—only domestic tourists were allowed permits—and the weather was sunny, occasionally cloudy and windy. The real reason was the government does not want foreign tourists to view firsthand the current crackdown and the heightened military presence in March, due to fears of potential unrest on the anniversary of the Uprisings of 1959 and 2008
In April, permits were re-issued, and fair-skinned foreign tourists toting heavy cameras began trickling in, trailing their tour guides around the city. It had been one month since I had seen any foreigners save the few that I knew lived in Lhasa, and I stared and studied them with the same fascination as the Tibetans, not used to the sight of them. A recent news article stated that areas of Sichuan, most likely Ngaba, were closed to tourists in April, following the self-immolation of a monk and the subsequent protests and crackdown in the region.
In May, another politically sensitive anniversary occurred on the 23rd—the 60th anniversary of the signing of the 17-Point Agreement, which China dubs the official day of Tibet’s “peaceful liberation.” (read the “17 Points of Disagreement”: 60 Years of China’s Failed Policies in Tibet)
It is now June, and the two anniversaries have passed, so why is Tibet yet again closed to foreign tourists? Documents cited the May 23rd anniversary, but it seems more likely that the ban is in response to the upcoming July 1st anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding. Likewise, the recent protests in Inner Mongolia may also have something to do with it:
In May, Beijing told foreigners not to sow unrest in its vast northern region of Inner Mongolia, after rare protests by ethnic Mongolians sparked by the hit-and-run death of a herder garnered international attention.
While blaming foreigners for unrest in Inner Mongolia is flattering, credit must be given where credit is due, and the people of Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and East Turkestan need to be recognized for their brave efforts.
The fact that Tibet is so frequently closed due to fears of potential unrest and heightened military crackdowns is absurd and horrifying. March through October is the tourist high season, yet three out of the past four months saw bans on foreign tourists in numerous areas in Tibet. Tour guides who have no work in the winter must toil grueling hours in the high season, making most, if not all of their income in that half of the year. A ban on foreign tourists means that hundreds, potentially thousands of tour guides will be making next to nothing this year.
Right now, Lhasa is being built up into a tourist hot spot, with new luxury hotels like the St. Regis Lhasa Resort and the Intercontinental popping up, along with malls, movie theaters, department stores, and restaurants emerging and vying for tourist dollars. The St. Regis Lhasa Resort opened its doors in November, boasting that they are offering training and employment opportunities for local Tibetans, but how can a hotel thrive when there are no tourists? They have built it, but no one can come.
How can tourism successfully function in Tibet today? It cannot and it will not until Tibet is a free and independent nation, free of military oppression, economic marginalization, and religious and cultural repression.