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Tourism Brings Dangerous Life Blood to Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/08/21; August 21, 2002.]

By Richard McGregor
Financial Times
August 21 2002

Soon after he returned to his ancestral home in a Tibetan area of south-west China in the late 80s, Dakpa Kelden's English skills, learned in exile in India, were put to good use by the local authorities.

To enforce a lingering, Mao Zedong-era decree closing the area to foreigners who had made their way to Diqing, Dakpa's job was to explain politely that they had to leave.

With the backing of the same authorities, Mr Dakpa has turned the decree on its head, establishing a business to guide tourists around the region's Tibetan treasures, and its mountain passes alongside the source of the Yangtze river.

But his success in bringing people into this now open region is confronting Mr Dakpa, 36, and his colleagues with a different problem: how to make sure the tourist trade doesn't wipe out the same Tibetan culture they want to protect.

"I feel that things are developing too fast - out of 10 people these days, only one can read Tibetan," Mr Dakpa said.

About 330,000 tourists have came to Diqing in the first six months of this year, roughly equal to the area's entire population, and about 20 per cent more than last year.

Local officials expect the numbers to rise even further, spurred by the gimmick of changing the name of the town of Zhongdian this year to Shangri-la, after the mythical city in the 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.

Once a shabby small city, albeit in a beautiful setting, Shangri-la is now starting to resemble a colourful Tibetan toy town, as its grey concrete buildings are painted to resemble traditional structures.

"This was a Tibetan city, but you could never feel Tibetan culture here," said Yang Peiyuan, the architect overseeing the renovation.

The Tibetan autonomous region around Diqing has another odd advantage - it is not actually in Tibet itself, but in neighbouring Yunnan province.

Far from the tensions of Lhasa, the political and religious capital of Tibet, the Chinese, Tibetans and the many other ethnic groups around Diqing co-exist for the most part peacefully.

The ambient repression that hangs over Lhasa, a product of its heavy military and security presence, and China's continuing vilification of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, seems a world away in Shangri-la.

"In Lhasa, if you are sending an e-mail in an internet cafe, you immediately sense someone looking over your shoulder," said Yeshi Dorjee, who also recently returned to Diqing after 12 years in India.

The head of a village a few hours outside Shangri-la laughs at such restrictions, and proudly displays a picture of the Dalai Lama in his in-house shrine.

"The officials know, and when I needed a passport to go to India for a special ceremony, they didn't care," he says.

The situation is not relaxed enough for Lobsang Choedan, the monk who runs a new Tibetan school for local children, to teach his pupils about their religion's spiritual leader. "The time is not ripe for that," he says.

Politics, however, is not the monk's greatest preoccupation - it is getting funds to run his school to teach young Tibetans their language and culture.

Mr Dakpa's travel company has been instrumental here, bringing in large donations from foreign tourists who have been inspired by their trips to the school.

"If the tourists did not visit, the school would not be there," says Dakpa. "It's good for the tourists and good for Tibetans."

The monk, who says his other big problem is stopping young people from gambling, is not just interested in Tibetan education. He also wants money to hire a Chinese-language teacher.

"You learn Chinese to communicate with the Chinese; Tibetan, because that is our culture; and English for the world," he said.

Dakpa and Yeshi, who speak all three languages, are typical of a new breed of internationalised Tibetans, who have been forced by politics to live and study overseas, before, in their cases, coming home.

Their slice of Tibet also has a different history - the Khampa region is on the old trading route out of Lhasa, making it in ancient times a kind of Tibetan commercial centre.

"We are trading people - we exchange things and do business," says Mr Dakpa.

As their truck bounces along the mountain road, the pair talk in Tibetan about the impact of tourism, splashing their conversation with English terms such as "carrying capacity" when their own language lets them down.

"The tourism revival is good, because otherwise, everything would be lost completely," says Mr Yeshi.

"But no one can resist making money, and if it develops too fast, it will have a serious impact on the monks and ordinary people."

Chinese provincial leaders, who want to promote economic development, know that the area's most valuable commodity is the Tibetan culture, and have vowed to manage tourism growth to preserve it.

But whether they can understand the subtleties of also allowing Tibetans to freely practice their religion is less clear.

"The most important thing for us is inner peace," says Mr Yeshi. "It's a very rare and precious thing."

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