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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

China believes domestic tourism can promote “ethnic unity”

February 27, 2017

The Economist, February 23, 2017 - Yaks graze on grassland near the turquoise waters of Karakul, a lake in the far western region of Xinjiang. Further south, towards the border with Pakistan, the imposing walls of a ruined hilltop fort at Tashkurgan mark a stop on the ancient Silk Road (see map). With such a rich landscape and history this region should be a magnet for Chinese tourists. Instead the area that accounts for more than one-sixth of China’s land mass is better known for violent unrest. The picturesque charms of the lake and fort can be enjoyed in near solitude.

For decades Xinjiang has been racked by a low-level insurgency involving ethnic Uighurs—a mostly Muslim minority many of whose members chafe at rule from Beijing. Most recently, on February 14th, attackers with knives killed five people and injured another five in a remote oasis town. Thousands of paramilitary troops have since paraded through three cities in Xinjiang in shows of “thunderous power” aimed at Uighur terrorists.

Chinese officials have long hoped that tourism would help to reduce unrest in Xinjiang by creating jobs and boosting wealth. High-spending travellers from China’s interior, they believe, can spread bonhomie and thereby strengthen “ethnic unity” between the Turkic-speaking Uighurs and the Han Chinese who make up more than 90% of the country’s population. The authorities in neighbouring Tibet, where many people similarly resent the central government’s control, have also looked to tourism as a salve. In both regions, however, their hopes have been dashed.

The central authorities have spent billions of dollars trying to make it work. A breathtaking high-altitude rail line linking Tibet with the national network was opened in 2006. A bullet-train service between the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang was launched in 2014. Expressways have been built across deserts; airports opened at oxygen-starved elevations.

In Tibet, these efforts have helped to fuel a tourism boom. Visits to Tibet increased fivefold between 2007 and 2015 to 20 million, according to government figures. The total number is misleading, since a tourist is often counted multiple times, when checking into a hotel or visiting an attraction, for instance. But the growth appears to be real, despite annual bans on visits by foreign tourists from late February to the beginning of April—the traditional season for protests. The impact on Tibet’s stability, however, has been far less impressive. The tourism industry in Tibet is dominated by ethnic Hans, who can communicate better with the travellers. Tibetans often complain they have seen little benefit.

By official reckoning, tourist arrivals in Xinjiang have also risen fast, albeit unevenly. Numbers dropped in 2014 following attacks blamed on Uighur terrorists in other parts of the country (unrest in Tibet has tended to be more peaceful). To shore up the battered tourism industry, the government tried subsidising hotel rooms and plane tickets. It even offered cash incentives of 500 yuan ($80 at the time). This may have helped: there were nearly 60m “visits” to the region in 2015, nearly triple the number in 2007.

Few of the tourists, however, go to southern Xinjiang, the area most troubled by separatist unrest and most in need of an economic lift. Visitors’ fears of violence are reinforced, not assuaged, by shows of force such as those staged by the security services in recent days. Armoured personnel carriers are a frequent sight in urban areas. Airport-style security is ubiquitous. Some buildings are fenced with barbed wire; guards check for bombs under cars entering their grounds.

In Kashgar (pictured), where separatist sentiment is strong among Uighurs and attacks blamed on terrorists have been particularly common, shopkeepers complain that the tourist trade has died. One says his family has had a hat shop in the city for 40 years, but sales are down by a third this year and prices are falling. At the “Karsu scenic area” on the edge of the Taklamakan desert the toilet and ticketing facilities have never even opened. A viewing platform, swings and a shaded area under umbrellas are used mainly by local (Han) staff and their families.

All the building of new infrastructure may be doing little to cheer Uighurs, either. Many of the workers who are upgrading the highway to Pakistan, a project due to be completed this year, are from outside the province. And as for bonhomie, evidence of its spread in Xinjiang is scant. Tourists often prefer to visit Han-dominated areas; those who visit Uighur ones sometimes offend locals by entering mosques in tight shorts or ignoring signs telling them not to climb on ancient ruins.

It does not help that Tibetans and Uighurs are unable to become part of the tourism boom themselves. Their movement within China and beyond is restricted. Many Tibetans have been refused new passports since an explosion of unrest across the region in 2008. Some have been ordered to surrender existing ones. Parts of Xinjiang launched a similar policy last year. In some areas people need official approval to travel abroad.

The police are also monitoring travel within Xinjiang more closely. This week all vehicles in Bayingol prefecture were ordered to install a satellite navigation system so people “can be tracked wherever they go”, as an official put it. The authorities say the measure should “safeguard stability”, because terrorists often use cars to stage attacks. Visitors to Bayingol’s scenic grasslands may not be reassured.

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