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Editorial and Op Ed Articles



    Pilgrims, Parks and Pillars: Tourism in Tibet
    By Thupten Norbu*

    For years, the Chinese government has been proclaiming that Tourism is a "pillar" industry, which will sustain the economic takeoff of Tibet. Tourism is an industry that could create wealth and renewed meanings for Tibetan culture or could be disastrous. The United Nations agency World Tourism Organization has presented two Master Plans for tourism to Tibet exclusively to the Chinese government, the first in 1990 (with little implementation) and the second in the period between 2000-2004. According to Xinhua, Tibet tourism plan will focus on establishing a world famous high plateau tourism destination for ecology and Tibetan culture. This year a bus service through the Friendship highway between Kathmandu, Nepal and Lhasa, Tibet has started. Gormo- Lhasa railway is not far from being completed and the Nathula pass that joins Sikkim, India and Tibet could open at any time. When it becomes easier to go to Tibet, this brings the question of whether Tourism industry will takeoff in Tibet. So far visitors remain modest, given the magnetic attraction to Tibetan culture and landscape.

    Unlike any of China's other proposed "pillar" industries such as urban construction, mining which are concentrated in urban centers and extractive enclaves, tourism is an industry that could potentially benefit Tibetans. Long before Lonely Planets, to name a few, Tibetan Lamas like Shabkar and wandering saints (Naljorpa) like Gotsangpa, and Maitripa wrote detailed and specific guides books to let pilgrims in advance know what to expect, and how to prepare their minds as well as the body for the arduous months on foot, yak or horseback, on the pilgrimage circuit. Even the yogi, Tangthong Gyalpo, the founder of Tibet's operatic tradition was also the father of development of Tibet, who built iron chain bridges, lasted for hundred years, out of compassion to ease the journey for the pilgrims. Tourism is an old Tibetan tradition sprouted from Buddhist belief of visiting sacred places to purify mind, soul and wash away sins.

    Recently a friend of mine who visited Tibet showed me pictures that capture the glimpse of Tibet, photo after photo revealed me that the "land of snow" is indeed a beautiful place, as he said, "you do not need to be a good photographer to take pictures in Tibet". Before Chinese came to Tibet, wild animals like wild ass (kyang), Tibetan antelope rolled freely with Tibetan nomads and domesticated animals; Tibet, curated landscape with care and compassion without fences was also a place where humans lived in close with nature for years. For those who are culturally attracted to Tibet, Potala Place in Lhasa, Mt Kailash, the world famous pilgrimage sites for both Buddhist and Hindus in the west upper Tibet; Nyenchen Tanglha and Namtso lake in central Tibet; Mt Tsari in southern Tibet; Machen Pomra and the whole Amnye Machen range, sacred to the legendary culture hero King Gesar in Amdo; Minya Konkar in Kham are just few of the most sacred places in Tibet.

    Since 1940s, there has been increasing threat to the wild life thus increasing number of protected areas have been created to counter such act, sometime restricting the nomads from using the areas which was in use once before. Many cultures sites especially monasteries were destroyed during the culture revolution and Tibetans communities have labored hard to rebuild those monasteries. These days Tibet is urbanizing rapidly, but with Chinese characters that sustain Chinese social discourse as one can witness in Lhasa.

    To make China's proclamation true, it is important that, China should start staffing protected areas by training and employing the local people. So far the precious places lack staff to monitor and conserve. The government must provide unconditional support and autonomy to rebuild and maintain Tibetan monasteries in Tibetan ways. Urban Planners must plan cities through Tibetans eyes with Tibetan characteristic to sustain Tibetan discourse. China should start conserving the lakes, landscapes and mountains that are culturally important to Tibetans, and a Tibet tourist industry must employ Tibetans in key roles, providing visitors with the encounter they seek, a living experience, embodied by Tibetans able to explain, beyond the surface, Tibetans way of life.

    [*Thupten Norbu, a student from the College of the Atlantic in Maine, USA, is currently studying Human Ecology of Tibet at Victoria University in Australia. Thupten interned with Tibet Justice Center's Environment and Development Program as a part of the Center's training program for Tibetans in environmental research and advocacy. He can be reached via e-mail at khoryoug@yahoo.com]

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