Efforts to turn Tibet into an top world-wide tourist destination have resulted in Chinese media publishing pictures of an empty public square in front of Potala Square in Lhasa as proof.
Xinhua published photos showing Chinese tourists posing in in the square that is mostly free of people, insisting “The number of tourists in Lhasa began to mount as the temperature rised [sic].” The Xinhua report did not provide any specific details.
Other media announcements have been made at an awkward time.
During the recent “two sessions”, deputy director of the Tibet tourism development commission Hong Wei said government regulations will be reformed in order to make travel to the region more accessible. “Tibet will be more open to domestic and foreign tourists in the next five years,” said Hong.
Hong’s remarks come at a time when non-Chinese tourists and visitors have been banned from traveling to Tibet. As has been the annual tradition since 2008 when anti-Beijing riots in Lhasa broke out, China forbids Tibet travel access to any foreign visitors during the month of March. This is a politically-sensitive period in Tibet that culminates in Tibet Uprising Day, which takes place on March 10, a day that marks Tibetan opposition to Beijing rule.
Any foreign traveler wishing to enter Tibet must first procure a Tibet travel permit, a special document not needed for other regions in China. As China Daily reports, this extra requirement is based on Tibet’s unique ethnic traditions, cultural heritage, reception capacity and ecological protection needs.
But even as foreign tourists are currently not allowed in, tourism in Tibet is flourishing from the huge numbers of Chinese tourists that flock there.
Mei Zhang, the founder of travel agency Wild China, says Tibet has become a “holy grail” to Chinese tourists. “It’s the spirituality, the exotic culture and also the stunning landscape,” explained Mei.
And the numbers of tourists are equally stunning. According to the Tibet Autonomous Region Tourism Development Committee, some 17.5 million tourists visited Tibet in the first nine months of 2015, an increase of 36 percent over the same period last year. Specifics detailing the difference between foreign and domestic tourists were not included in the report.
Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University, said that a distinct difference between Chinese and foreign tourists is where their money ends up.
Local Tibetans tend to benefit more from foreign tourists “since they want to be guided by Tibetans, want their money to go to Tibetans, and tend to prefer low-impact, sustainable forms of tourism,” said Barnett, while “Chinese businesses appear to benefit most from mass tourism, which mainly involves Chinese tourists.”
But while Chinese tourism continues to rise in domestic and outbound trips, foreign tourists from abroad are becoming less inclined to come to China. Last year’s 8.2 million foreign tourists marked a decline of 680,000, or about 8 percent, from the year prior.
All the same, even without foreign tourists, China is banking heavily on tourism to develop Tibet. Local Tibet authorities have predicted tourist revenue will double in the next five years, accounting for over 40 percent of local economic output.
Already, Lhasa’s tourism revenue has more than tripled in the past five years to an estimated 15.49 billion yuan ($2.35 billion) in 2015. The local authorities say the revenue will double by 2020, bringing some 150,000 jobs in the city.
Development in Tibet has already resulted in Lhasa’s first-ever KFC, the construction of a second railway line to be completed by 2030, and plans for a ski resort.