LHASA, China – Tourism is booming in Tibet as more Chinese travel to the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, posing risks to the fragile environment and historic sites in the region.
At the Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lamas, the number of visitors is limited to 5,000 per day. Balancing tourism demand with the need to minimize wear and tear on the massive hillside structure is a constant challenge, said Gonggar Tashi, the chief administrator.
“The biggest challenge for us is the contradiction between the protection and use of cultural relics,” Tashi told reporters in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital on a government-organized tour that gave foreign journalists access. rare in Tibet, but under the watchful eye of officials who set the agenda.
Tourists seem indifferent to the political controversies that have long surrounded Tibet. Chinese Communist forces entered the region in 1951, and the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s traditional spiritual and political leader, fled to India in a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
Millions of visitors come to Tibet every year, an increase of 12.6% in 2020 from the previous year, according to Ge Lei, deputy director of the China Tourism Marketing Association.
He said he expects the number of visitors to roughly double by 2026 – an overabundance of visitors that far exceeds the Tibetan population of 3.5 million. He said that means we have to be careful to protect the environment and culture.
Tourists are drawn to the “mystique and myth of Tibet as an isolated snow-capped land,” said Travis Klingberg, cultural geographer at NYU Shanghai. “But Tibet has become a place of significant beautiful natural landscapes for the Chinese nation.”
Tibet has shifted its focus from international visitors to domestic visitors as China’s middle class has grown, said Emily Yeh, professor of geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Tibetans have sometimes complained about Chinese tourists’ lack of respect for cultural traditions, including walking on prayer flags, Yeh said.
The tourism sector is strengthening government propaganda, Yeh said. The ruling Communist Party claims to have freed hundreds of thousands of serfs when it overthrew the theocracy in 1951 and has since brought economic development to the high plateau bordering the Himalayas.
“Rewriting history is an integral part of the tourist landscape,” Yeh said.
Among the most popular natural sites is Lake Namtso, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and Buddhist shrines, with herds of yaks and migrating birds on the horizon. Further development of the site must be done with care to avoid damaging what makes it attractive, Ge said.
“It will be difficult to protect the ecology and culture of Tibet (…) if we do not have a long term plan,” he said. “So it is very important to establish a set of values and rules of behavior for traveling to Tibet while building the facilities.”