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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."

Suddenly, the Roof of the World Is Closed

April 4, 2008

By MICHELLE HIGGINS
The New York Times
April 6, 2008
Practical Traveler | Tibet

TIBET’S fast-growing tourism industry has come to a screeching halt in
the wake of violent protests that began with a March 14 riot in Lhasa,
the capital of Tibet, and resulted in a major crackdown by Chinese
security forces.

Within days of the protests, the Chinese government barred tourists from
Tibet, which China calls an autonomous region, by no longer issuing the
entry permits needed to travel there. The two main routes to Mount
Everest, including one in Nepal, are being shut to climbers for much of
the May climbing season, to protect China’s plans to carry the Olympic
torch to its summit.

In response to the riots, the State Department issued a Travel Alert on
March 21 advising American citizens to defer trips to Tibet.

The travel ban comes as tourism in Tibet has begun to flourish. Visits
to Tibet surged in recent years as access to the region, high in the
Himalayas, got easier, interest in Tibetan Buddhism grew and rising
Chinese incomes spurred domestic travel. In 2006, China opened the
Qinghai-Tibet railway — the so-called train to the Roof of the World —
linking Beijing to Lhasa. And roads into Tibet, while still rugged, have
been paved. Tibetan-themed boutique hotels have even opened.

Before the unrest, the regional government was expecting 5 million
visitors this year, up 25 percent from a year earlier, according to a
report on the Web site of the China Tibet Information Center,
en.tibet.cn. Tourism revenue was predicted to reach 6 billion yuan, more
than $850 million.

But as a result of the tourist ban, major tour operators, including
Travcoa, the Globus brands and Collette Vacations, have either
postponed, altered or canceled trips to Tibet, just as the trekking
season is getting under way.

Mountain Travel Sobek of Emeryville, Calif., which has been offering
tours of Tibet since 1980, has canceled its treks there through June.
Some trips that go beyond Tibet will continue; its Himalayan Passages
journey this month, for example, will bypass Tibet and devote more time
to Nepal and Bhutan.

Collette Vacations of Pawtucket, R.I., which offered trips to Tibet for
the first time this year, has canceled the Tibet portion of an April
China trip. Eight other visits to Tibet are planned this year, with
about 100 of the 360 anticipated bookings filled, but whether the trips
will take place remains uncertain.

“We may need to cancel future trips to Tibet if the situation does not
improve,” John Galvin, Collette’s chief financial officer, wrote in an
e-mail message.

Still, in an unexpected twist, tour operators say that the reports of
unrest haven’t scared off travelers and may have, in fact, actually
increased interest in Tibet. That wasn’t the case in Myanmar, formerly
Burma, after the military government there brutally put down protests
led by monks in September. “Travelers were very frightened about heading
to Burma while the protests and crackdowns were occurring,” said Leslie
Overton, general manager at Absolute Travel in Manhattan, which sends 30
to 40 clients to Tibet each year.

But she added: “People who were scheduled to go to Tibet still very much
want to go and do not seem concerned about the situation. Obviously, we
have to redirect them elsewhere because nobody can get entry permits for
Tibet, but I do think it’s interesting that the current events seem to
have actually stimulated interest in the destination rather than
discouraged it.”

Tour operators who have canceled trips to Tibet are generally offering
customers the option to visit another destination, like Nepal, get a
full refund or postpone their trips. Indeed, many companies are holding
out hope that Tibet will reopen to travelers soon, since the high season
runs to October.

San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions, for example, has not
canceled its summer or fall excursions. Travcoa, a luxury tour operator
in Newport Beach, Calif., which introduced three Tibet tours this year,
canceled its April trip but not its August one — though it is advising
customers for the August trip to hold off on purchasing nonrefundable
airline tickets.

GLOBUS, which has 18 Tibet trips planned this year (up from 16 last year
and 8 in 2006), restructured its March trip and offered customers the
option to cancel, reschedule or continue on without seeing Tibet. But
it’s holding off on making adjustments to scheduled trips, in hopes that
Tibet opens up again.

Still, the crackdown in Tibet has raised ethical questions about future
travel to the region. On the one hand, tourism can be seen as providing
legitimacy to China’s response. On the other hand, visiting is a way to
learn more about what’s happened in Tibet and educating others about its
culture.

Travel companies say that not visiting Tibet is the wrong approach.
Geographic Expeditions offers an essay on its Web site by a staff
member, Tom Cole, saying that travel to Tibet can encourage human rights.

“Renegade governments often clean up their act when they know the
outside world is watching,” wrote Mr. Cole, who first visited Tibet in
1980. Furthermore, he added, travelers “almost invariably come home
eager to help, not forget, those people.”

Human Rights Watch doesn’t have a position on whether tourists should
visit Tibet, but says that visitors should be aware of possible human
rights abuses. “We call it being an informed traveler,” said Minky
Worden, media director at Human Rights Watch in New York.

Consider where your tourist dollars are going, she said: “Are you
staying in a resort owned by the military? Are you funding the military
in an oppressed country?”

Julene Lavelli, a social worker from Chicago, who was planning to tour
Tibet this month through Globus, said, “I’m very disappointed we’re not
going.” Instead, she left on a three-week journey through China that
included a cruise down the Yangtze, a visit to the giant panda breeding
research base in Chengdu and sightseeing in Beijing. But she hasn’t
given up on visiting Tibet.

“Maybe I’ll try to go again from the Indian side of the border in a
couple years,” she said.
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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