Introduction: Travel Ethics in Tibet


To Go or Not to Go

There has never been a travel boycott as there is with Burma or was with South Africa. Some Tibetans and others believe tourism provides legitimacy to the Chinese government and hard currency to futher colonize and suppress Tibetans. Most Tibetans, however, support tourism because it constitutes a means by which the outside world can learn of conditions in Tibet and the aspirations of Tibetans. The Dalai Lama encourages people to travel to Tibet and bear witness to the occupation and colonization of Tibet and the suffering of the Tibetans under repressive Chinese policies. While ICT believes it is a choice that must be weighed by each traveler, we encourage those travelers who go to Tibet to follow certain principles, laid out below: support religious freedom; buy from Tibetans; protect the environment; use Tibetan guides; and support Tibetan organizations when you return home.

Support Religious Freedom

Official entrance fees at large monasteries are usually controlled by the “Democratic Management Committee”, installed by Chinese authorities. Donations left on altars may benefit the monks, nuns, and the monasteries. Donations to smaller, out of the way monasteries are more likely to be used according to traditional Tibetan custom since they are not so regulated by Chinese authorities.

Buy from Tibetans

To support Tibetans, Tibetan culture and the Tibetan economy, buy from Tibetan-owned shops and stalls. There is a massive influx of Chinese immigrants in Lhasa who are now taking over Lhasa’s economy and putting Tibetans out of work, including around the Barkhor in central Lhasa. The Dalai Lama has called this continuing influx the greatest threat to the survival of Tibetan culture.

Do Not Buy Antiques

Much of Tibet’s artistic treasures have already been destroyed or plundered during China’s occupation and there continues to be systematic theft of Tibet’s artistic heritage. Please leave antiques in Tibet. Since it is difficult to tell what is antique and what is not, one rule of thumb to follow is that if someone tries to sell something secretly, don’t buy it. Stick to the public stores and stalls.

Help Protect Tibet’s Wildlife

Do not buy animal products made from wild animals, especially from endangered species (i.e. pelts of snow leopard, the common leopard and the tiger; horns of Tibetan antelope. Please take a photograph if any of these items are seen and notify the International Campaign for Tibet.

Hire Tibetan Guides

For those going on group tours, ask if the group will have a Tibetan Guide. If not, ask them to provide one. Many Chinese tour guides work in Tibet and while a few are knowledgeable, most know little about Tibetan history, culture and customs. Also, ask the tour company before hand if they have a policy of using only Tibetan guides. This is an area where travelers and tourists can make a difference, resulting in more employment for Tibetans and a better understanding of Tibet during the trip.

Avoid Putting Tibetans At Risk

As a foreigner, there is virtually no risk for you, but there are circumstances where travelers have put Tibetans at great risk, and in rare occasions have contributed to the detention or arrest of Tibetans. Remember, you are traveling in an occupied country where political and human rights issues are extremely sensitive. While tour guides can expect all sorts of questions, use common sense when raising sensitive topics with Tibetans, particularly if your conversation can be overheard. Also, do not give politically sensitive information to Tibetans. If a Tibetan talks to you about politics, or gives something politically sensitive to you, make sure to keep your interaction very private and guard their identity by not writing down their names or telling it to others. The movements of foreign tourists are monitored in Tibet, not only by official methods such as permits and hotel registration, but also by numerous Chinese dressed in civilian clothing, Tibetans informants etc. Good common sense will serve you well in almost all situations in Tibet -just keep in mind how serious Chinese authorities are towards punishing Tibetans who express their support for anything associated with independence for Tibetans.

What to Bring – and Not to Bring

Photos and postcards of the Dalai Lama are extremely popular in Tibet. However, if you bring them, keep them well hidden and do not distribute them publicly. China has been cracking down on the public display of photos and it is not inconceivable that you could have photos confiscated and be questioned if you were to make it known that you were distributing them. If books, audio cassettes or videos about or by the Dalai Lama, or copies of the Tibetan national flag are found in the possession of a Tibetan, it will likely result in detention, arrest and torture for the Tibetan. Travelers found with such material could be detained, fined or expelled. Therefore, we recommend you do not bring these items to Tibet to give out. Single copies of books by or about the Dalai Lama – and copies of this map ­ if kept privately in your possession are OK