In 2007, more than 365,000 foreign tourists visited Tibet, an increase of 136 percent from the previous year. Last year’s inauguration of a high-altitude train line from Beijing to Tibet was instrumental in raising Tibet’s tourism profile, and the nation’s evergreen appeal as the home of Mount Everest and Tibetan Buddhism certainly contributed to these impressive figures. But last month, tourism growth ground to a halt when Tibetans and Buddhist monks began a deadly clash in opposition to the Chinese government’s half-century rule of the mountainous region. A travel warning was issued by the U.S. Department of State asking Americans to defer travel to Tibet until at least April 21. The U.S. embassy in Beijing also issued a warning against travel to areas of west China with a Tibetan majority, including Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai and Xinjiang provinces.
Turmoil in Tibet challenges tourism.
“Tourist visas for travel to Tibet are not being issued at this time,” says Sam Dong, inbound manager of Los Angeles-based China Travel Service. “We’re also advising travelers who do contact us to not travel to Tibet at this time.”
In response to the protests, some countries, notably France, have been calling for a boycott of the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics, which will be held in Beijing this August. The rush to get on the no-show bandwagon, however, has been non-existent. In an interview with The Washington Times, Condoleezza Rice suggested that a boycott of the 2008 Olympics would be ineffective, since it was a sporting rather than a political event. Furthermore, she said, even after the Olympic games end it would still be necessary for Washington to “continue to engage the regime about troublesome policies” when the Olympics end.
“I don’t think the protests will impact the Olympics,” says Hunter Wang, CEO of Panda Travel USA. “Most of those bookings were made quite a while ago, and it would take more than the current level of problems in China to deter Olympics-bound travelers.”
Panda Travel USA has an October Tibet travel agent fam on its schedule. “We did get some inquiries from travel agents who have already signed up,” says Wang. “We reassured them that the disturbances in Tibet were timed to coincide with Beijing hosting the Summer Olympics and that things would be back to normal in a few months.”
Much Ado About Nothing?
The protests have had no effect on Panda Travel’s scheduled western China itineraries and programs, and Hunter reports that the safety issue isn’t holding people back from booking travel. Hunter pointed to the March 26 reopening of the PotalaPalace in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, as an indication that the unrest is a thing of the past. Even so, during the same period, tour and hotel operators in China were reporting that foreign visitors have left Tibet or have been barred from entering, while Chinese tanks and soldiers still patrol Lhasa.
In anticipation of further protests, Nepalese officials have declared the summit of Mount Everest, which straddles the Nepali-Chinese border, to be off-limits for mountain climbers during the first 10 days of May. There are plans to carry the Olympic torch up Nepal’s side of the mountain during this period.
Katherine Wong, who heads up reservations for California-based tour operator GTS Globotours, is on the front line with travel agents, handling their requests. “We haven’t received any feedback from a moral or political perspective, and we haven’t experienced any problems with our China and Beijing bookings,” she says, adding that the company sees little demand for Tibet during the summer. “This is due to the hot weather. Most of our Tibet itineraries are scheduled during September and October.”