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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibet to reopen to foreign tourists

July 1, 2011

By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY

Luxury travel just reached the roof of the world.

Need to unwind in a gold-plated swimming pool, then enjoy butler service in your suite, with oxygen tanks on hand? Even at 12,000 feet above sea level, the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, can now accommodate such high-end desires, after its first five-star hotel opened last month.
But non-Chinese visitors better wait until August to check in, when Tibet should reopen to foreign tourists.
For the second time this year, following a now-annual travel ban in March, the anniversary of deadly riots in 2008, foreigners cannot visit Tibet from late June through most of July because of two major political anniversaries, say travel agents in Lhasa and Beijing. In April, foreigners were barred from some Tibetan areas of neighboring Sichuan province, after unrest at a Buddhist monastery.
This series of travel bans suggests a high degree of government nervousness about potential trouble — and foreign witnesses — and undermines efforts to portray Tibet as harmonious and open for business, says the International Campaign for Tibet, an activist group.
Officials plan to make tourism a pillar industry in Tibet, by doubling the number of visitors, mostly Chinese, to 15 million in 2015. Tibet has a permanent population of 3 million, of whom 90% are ethnic Tibetans, according to the 2010 census.
"It's a pity we are losing some tourists because of political reasons," said Zhao Xia at Dream Travel Agency in Beijing, which sells 10-day tours for $1,200.
Tibet is the only region of China for which foreign tourists must secure a special travel permit, in addition to a Chinese visa. Domestic Chinese tourists remain unaffected, said Zhao Li, a sales agent at Tibet Taixing tour company in Lhasa, who said he hopes to reschedule foreign customers to visit in late July.
Both travel agents said official notices cited the reason for the ban as the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Communist rule over Tibet, dating to a May 1951 agreement the party calls the "Peaceful Liberation of Tibet," and the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party's founding July 1. Tibet was a de facto sovereign state the size of Western Europe when invaded in 1950 by Chinese communist troops.
The state-run Tibet Tourism Bureau in Lhasa declined to comment on the ban when contacted by USA TODAY.
Tibetan authorities "fear the situation in Tibet is unpredictable, as Tibetans have shown they will risk their lives to show loyalty to the Dalai Lama, and opposition to Chinese policy," said Kate Saunders, the London-based communications director for the International Campaign for Tibet, a lobbying group.
After the Tibetan spiritual leader fled Tibet for India following a failed uprising in 1959, Chinese authorities destroyed thousands of Buddhist monasteries and killed thousands of Tibetan monks and nuns.
"Authorities attempt to give an appearance of openness — 'Come and see the Tibetans are happy and prosperous under Chinese rule' — yet at the same time, they close foreign tourism to Tibet," Saunders said.
Beijing has "a paranoid mind-set which achieves control by the barrel of a gun, and blocking access to Tibet," she said.
Tibet has become "a focus of world tourism," Tibetan guide Labapuchi told a group of Han Chinese visitors Tuesday to a new, large-scale exhibition in Beijing extolling "60 years of achievements" in Tibet.
"We welcome the whole world to visit Tibet and understand our culture," said Labapuchi, 22, a student in Beijing who plans to work in environmental protection in Tibet.
Like their guides, visitors to the exhibit appeared unaware of the ban on foreign tourists.
"I thought it was quite stable there this year," said Li Junhui, 56, a Beijing-based clothing retailer.
Next month, Li and 40 friends will visit Tibet. Some of them will take the record-breaking train that opened in 2006, and others will drive on a nine-day road trip, Li said. "We in the rest of China have cared about and supported Tibet for so many years. Now I want to see it for myself," he said.
Well-heeled Chinese visitors form the key target market for the St. Regis Lhasa Resort, the city's first five-star facility, room director Jean-Michel Kok told state-run Xinhua News Agency last month. In a sign of the sensitivity surrounding the travel ban and anniversaries, the hotel refused interview requests this week. In the next three years, both the Shangri-La and InterContinental hotel groups will also open high-end hotels in the city, Xinhua reported.
Although Tibet's economy lags behind the booming provinces on China's east and south coastlines, the government claims rapid climbs in living standards. Per capita net incomes for farmers and herders jumped almost 100% between 2005 and 2010 to $640, according to the Beijing exhibition.
"The Tibetan people now live happy lives like never before," one display read.

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