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Tibetan Tour Guides Outside the TAR

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 05/06/22; June 22, 2005.]

TIN, Tuesday, June 21, 2005

London, June 20 - The difficult conditions faced by ethnic Tibetan tour guides in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and in particular the Chinese authorities' frequent attempts to regulate their work through politically motivated directives, have been widely reported. The picture in Tibetan areas outside the TAR, where the tourism industry is also growing, is no different. With factors like strong competition between non-Tibetan and Tibetan guides, and occasional restrictions, a picture emerges where Tibetans are increasingly pushed into marginal roles in this booming sector.

TIN here presents extracts from interviews conducted with tourist guides working in Tibetan areas outside the TAR. Large numbers of Chinese tourists are attracted each year to cultural and historical sites in these areas, as well as areas of natural beauty. The promotion of tourism, in particular internal PRC tourism, as a 'pillar industry' in Tibetan areas that are now part of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan has meant that tourist villages, picnic areas etc have also been developed there. In Sichuan province, for example, the famous Jiuzhaigou [Tib: Zitsa Degu] World Heritage site and its environs attract each year visitors in numbers comparable to those visiting the entire TAR. Despite Tibetan protests, sky burial sites continue to be tourist attractions, whereas this, at least in principle, has been prohibited in the TAR. Monasteries too see large visitor numbers. This is further encouraged by of Chinese visitors taking a serious interest in Tibetan Buddhism. An increasing number of whom take on Tibetan lamas as teachers, thus developing strong links between those and Buddhist practitioners in China .

Most translators and guides that operate from places like Xining , Qinghai (Traditionally the Tibetan area of Amdo), are reported to be Chinese. Only a small number of Tibetans are employed, even though tourists do tend to express a preference for ethnic Tibetan guides. Many Chinese guides reportedly take on Tibetan names to give the impression of being Tibetan. Most tourists visiting Tibetan areas from various parts of the PRC travel on tours organised through agencies that employ mainly Chinese guides.

The following is an extract of an interview TIN conducted with a monk in Labrang monastery in Gansu who worked as a tour guide. Officially the monasteries are discouraged from employing their own guides.

"Since 2000, I worked as a translator [tour guide] for Labrang monastery. Ten of us monks passed an exam in Chinese about the history of our monastery and the history of Buddhism in Tibet . The exam was held by the cultural department of the monastery and I started work as tour guide. Many Chinese tourists visit our monastery, so we have to guide them and translate for them. Two monks are English-speaking tour guides. For our work we were paid a small amount by the monastery - 150 yuan [ UK 10.00; US$18.00; EUR15.00] per month. In summer time many hundreds of tourists visit our monastery and the proceeds of ticket sales are used towards renovation of the monastery. If you say that you are a Buddhist practitioner you don't have to buy a ticket to visit the monastery, so Chinese monk tourists don't need to buy tickets, but some of the Chinese monk tourists buy tickets because they say that the money that they have paid for the ticket will benefit the monastery."

"Actually, tour guides need to have a tour guide certificate but we didn't have any papers, so the shen government [shen/dzong (Chin: xian) = county] and the shen tourism bureau always tells us that we are not allowed to guide tourists.

When we guide tourists in the monastery, we explain to them very clearly about the history of the monastery, Tibetan culture etc. A Chinese tour guide wouldn't know about this and wouldn't be able to explain things properly. For example, the Chinese guides who accompany groups travelling with agencies tell tourists that Tibetan Buddhism was brought from China to Tibet and that all Tibetan monks are forced to become monks by their parents when they are young and also if you are a Tibetan then you must become monk etc. Some of the foreign visitors would ask about the history of the monastery and tell us that the Chinese tour guides haven't explained about this very well."

"Among the Chinese tourists there are some tourists who know a little bit of Buddhism. Some of the Chinese tourists hold Tibetan monks in high regard, particularly Chinese tourists who are from outside of the mainland, such as visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan etc. But also some of the Mainland Chinese tourists, particularly from Beijing and the east coast say that Tibetan monks are good. The attitude of Chinese visitors from places nearer to Labrang, such as Lanzhou [The capital of Gansu province], is more negative and many tend to be disrespectful to aspects of monastic life. In respect of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, some Chinese tourists point out that he is a separatist, while some say that he is a good and talented person and that he won the Nobel Peace Prize."

Pema T. is a 22 year old man from Labrang [Chin: Xiahe) who has worked in one of perhaps a dozen tourist villages that have sprung up on the grasslands around Sakhog township in Labrang. Job prospects for Tibetans in some of these tourist villages are limited to that of ethnic dance performers. Pema describes a situationwhere Tibetans find themselves reinforcing exotic-erotic imagery that to some extent prevails in mainstream Chinese representations of non-Han Chinese minorities.

"There is a tourist park in Labrang dzong Sakhog shang [shang (Ch: xiang) = township/district] constructed by the county military affairs bureau. At that time, when the Park was completed, they recruited some Tibetan dancers for entertainment in the park. I got a job there in 2002 through a connection with an officer in the armed forces even though I didn't comply with the requirement that I had to be able to speak and write Chinese. There are 40 to 50 workers in our tourist village and 20 of us are dancers. All the other workers apart from one Tibetan cook are from Chengdu and there are no local Chinese employed there at all."

"Most of the customers coming to our park are army officials and high army leaders and generals such as from Beijing and Lanzhou etc. When they arrive, army staff from Labrang county military affairs bureau would help us to prepare everything. In the evenings we have to make a fire and dance for them and serve them chang [Tibetan barley beer]. They then would dance with us. The Tibetan girl dancers have to perform modern dances with the leaders. Some of the visitors force the girl dancers to drink alcohol and they try to kiss them. Most of the girls in the park are around 16 to 17 years old. Our superiors could usually see that these high-placed visitors would give alcohol and would kiss the Tibetan girl dancers but they would encourage it rather than say anything about it. The dancers get extra money for dancing with the high officials. The leaders of the armed forces would also try to sleep with the Tibetan girl dancers. For example, after we have danced for the customers, we have to serve alcohol to them, and at that time some of the Chinese get a little drunk and then they would drag the Tibetan girl dancers outside and say that they want to sleep with them. Some of them probably do sleep with them. Both Chinese female and male officials would come to our park to have picnics but the Chinese woman officials won't dance with the Tibetan boys, they only dance with the Chinese boys that come along with them."

"Previously there were no brothels in Sakhog shang, but these days there are brothels. The Chinese visitors have money which they like to spend on sexual pleasure. In Sakhog shang there were around 4 to 5 Tibetan brothels and an equal amount of Chinese brothels that were closed after threats from local nomad youths."

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