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China unleashes tourism in latest invasion of Tibet

November 5, 2010

Clifford Coonan in Beijing
The Independent
November 3, 2010

Wealthy tourists will soon be able to gaze out at
the Roof of the World as a smartly dressed waiter
expertly pours a glass of imported wine in the
intimate setting of the Decanter bar of Tibet's first luxury hotel.

For centuries an isolated, mystical enclave ruled
by Tibetan Buddhist monks, Lhasa -- the
administrative centre of the Tibet Autonomous
Region == has changed profoundly since Chinese
troops entered in 1950 and imposed the dominant
Han Chinese culture on the ancient territory.

The introduction in recent years of regular
flights, as well as the building of a high-tech
train service from central Qinghai province to
Tibet == the first rail link between the area and
the rest of China -- has seen tourists arrive in
droves to the city where, historically, neither
foreigners nor Chinese dared enter.

The surge of tourists to the Himalayan region has
seen visitor numbers jump during the first nine
months of 2010 to 5.8 million, up 23 per cent on
the same period a year earlier.

And newly wealthy Chinese want luxury
accommodation. "The St Regis Lhasa Resort offers
refined luxury and superlative service in a
storied city," gushes the breathless blurb on the
St Regis website. "Discover Potala Palace and
Norbulingka, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and
Jokhang Temple, all minutes from our resort."

A room for the night at Lhasa's newest place to
stay will set you back about £200. The
Intercontinental and Shangri-La hotel groups are
also about to unveil high-end luxury hotels in coming months.

But the opening up of the region has not been
seamless. In March 2008, violent protests focused
on Han Chinese settlers in the region left 22
dead, according to government figures, although
Tibetan rights groups say the figure was far
higher. Officials blamed protest activity across
the plateau on separatists loyal to the Dalai Lama.

There is a heavy police presence on the streets
of Lhasa and hardline measures have been put in
place to maintain religious and political stability.

Lhasa used to be one of the most remote and
inaccessible places in the world, but Beijing has
been keen to promote the city as a tourist destination.

"The opening of St Regis ends Tibet's history of
no luxury hotels. High-end hotels will help boost
Tibet's tourism," Wang Songping, deputy chief of
the Tibetan Tourism Administration, told the Xinhua news agency.

Beijing says the People's Liberation Army rescued
Tibetans from a feudal system run by Buddhist
monks and insists the remote Himalayan territory
has been part of Chinese territory for centuries.

It accuses the Dalai Lama, who left Tibet after a
failed uprising in 1959 and has not returned
since, of being a dangerous "splittist,"
agitating for independence. The Chinese
government says it is bringing prosperity to a
traditionally impoverished area. It has started a
huge building programme and says it has done much
to lift the enclave out of isolation.

Tibetan activists have warned that tourism and
migration by Han Chinese could swamp Tibet's
distinctive culture, with Tibetan people not
receiving their fair share of new jobs and income.

But the hotel is less concerned with the politics
and more interested in promoting its image as a go-to destination.

"Four meeting rooms surpass your expectations,
while Iridium, the Spa, brings a uniquely Tibetan
flavour to a soothing array of indulgent treatments," promises the brochure.

Overseas groups who demand Tibet's autonomy say
the opening up of the region could lead to an
influx of ethnic Han Chinese migrants who will
eventually displace Tibetans in their own homeland.

For Chinese tourists, Tibet has a spiritual
dimension which people feel is missing from the
Han areas of China and the cities on the eastern
seaboard. Chinese tourists don Tibetan cowboy
hats and robes and seek to share in the
spirituality that the mystical Tibetans are supposed to exude.

The hotel features 162 guest rooms and villas
with plasma TV, broadband and spacious marble bathrooms.

"Our St Regis Butler will address your every
request for an unforgettable stay," the hotel promises.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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