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Red Tape Holds Up Tibetan Tourist Boom

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/03/15; March 15, 2002.]

Kyodo news, 15 March 2002.
By Geoffrey Murray

LHASA, March 14, Kyodo - Although the local government regards tourism as a vital part of Tibet's economic development, travel to the remote mountain region is still bedeviled by red tape.

Even though the region is claimed as part of China, a tourist entry visa still has to be supplemented by a separate permit for onward travel from the Tibet Tourism Bureau, requiring a confirmation letter from an accredited Tibetan travel agency handling the trip.

Controls on the issue of plane tickets and checks on road entry points in Qinghai, Sichuan, Xinjiang and Yunnan, as well from Kathmandu, ensure the requirements are met.

Organized tours of a minimum of six people are also the norm.

A government statement explains: ''In consideration of the infrastructure, the reception ability of transportation and tourism of Lhasa, the national cultural tradition of the Tibetan nationality, the culture relics, the natural environment and so on, the government encourages the development of group travel.''

But Tibet Autonomous Government press office director Xiao Huaiyuan also admits: ''We are not able to make money from individual travelers. An individual will hire a bike and run all over Lhasa. Some will find hostels, which cost only 3 or 5 yuan (less than $1) a night.

"Also, we are worried about infiltration. Some visitors do inappropriate things, such as supporting independence for Tibet or spreading rumors in support of the Dalai Lama," said the tourism bureau's deputy director Li Hongfu. Foreign reporters often try to sneak into Tibet under a tourism guise.

Sympathetic tourist officials now tend to try to get round the problem of individual travelers by sending them to travel agencies to be organized into ad hoc groups.

In the first 11 months of 2001, the Tibet Autonomous Region received 659,000 domestic and overseas visitors, up 16.5% from the previous year, producing income of 680 million yuan ($82 million), a 4.3% increase. Because of the influence of the September attacks on the United States, however, the number of overseas tourists dropped by 20% to 110,000.

Officials in Lhasa calculate foreigners spend an average of $142 a day. Tibet wants to widen tourism by 10% a year and aims to attract at least 600,000 travelers a year by 2005, bringing revenues of at least 400 million yuan.

Difficult access remains a problem for would-be travelers to Tibet, especially for trips outside Lhasa, although several key cities now have airports. Lhasa is served by Gonggar Airport, a former military air base converted to civilian use. But landing there entails a 100-km bus ride into the city, and the terminal building can only handle 600 people an hour. A new terminal will be completed by June 2003.

One problem is that flying in from the lowlands usually leaves the majority of visitors feeling breathless and unwell due to the high altitude.

The ideal acclimatization route is via road, but the journey takes several days and is not very comfortable and is prone to closure through avalanches and mud slides. The main highways to Tibet are the Chengdu-Lhasa route, 2,330 km long, and the Xining-Golmud-Lhasa route 1,907 km long, running at an average elevation of 4,000 meters.

A new option will open in the middle of this decade -- Tibet's first railway line, a 1,300 km-plus route linking Golmud in Gansu with Lhasa. A second route from Yunnan Province is planned board.

Travel outside the main cities can be a trial, the Tibetan authorities freely admitting many country roads, especially in the north, are crude and facilities for fuel and food few and far between.

Travelers who can overcome all the obstacles are well rewarded for their efforts with stunning scenery -- including 45 mountains over 7,000 meters and the Yarlung Zangbo River Canyon, thought to be the world's longest -- and a culture unlike anything else on earth.


Lhasa: The downtown and suburban areas teem with cultural relics and places of historical interest, such as Potala Place, the Dalai Lama's official residence, and the Jokhang, Zhaibung, Sera and Gandain monasteries. Barkhor Street surrounding Jokhang is the main shopping area.

Xigaze: At an elevation of 3,800 meters, Xigaze has a history of some 500 years. It is home to the Tashilhungpo Monastery, the political and religious center of inner Tibet. Inside the monastery is a giant bronze statue of Qamba Buddha. To its south is the Qomolangmo (Mt. Everest) nature reserve.

Shannan: The cradle of Tibet on the southern bank of the middle reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River at an elevation of 3,600 meters, with a temperate climate. It has some famous ancient monasteries such as the Samye and the Qamzhub monasteries, as well as sites of historical interest such as the Yungbolhakang Palace and the Tombs of Tibetan Kings.

Nyingchi: On the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo in southeast Tibet, Nyingchi is home to a number of ethnic minorities. Scenic spots include Namjagbarwa Peak, the Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon and the Basum Co Lake.

Ngari: In the western part of Tibet, Ngari, at an elevation averaging 4,500 meters, is known as the "roof of the roof of the world." The prefecture teems with lakes and is scarcely populated. It is a paradise for wild yaks, Tibetan antelopes, Mongolian gazelle, wild Tibetan donkeys and other species of wildlife. Places of historical interest include ruins of the Guge Kingdom, Toding Monastery and the site of ancient Dorshang Castle, as well as holy mountains and holy lakes.

Nagqu: In northern Tibet at an elevation of more than 4,500 meters, Nagqu is referred to as the Northern Tibet Plateau. Popular sites include ruins of the ancient and mysterious Zhangzhung Culture, monasteries of the animist Bon religion and the holy lake Nam Co.

Qamdo Prefecture: In the Hengduan Mountain Ranges with a vast expanse of forests, it is known for its historical ruins and unsophisticated folklore.

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