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Tourism and Traditional Life in Tibet

Photographer: How Hwee Young


Known as the 'Roof of the World' with an average elevation of 4,900 metres, Tibet, or the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, is home to some of the world's highest and largest mountains and plateaus. Its capital city Lhasa houses UNESCO World Heritage sites like the famous Potala Palace and Norbulingka which used to be the main residences of the Dalai Lama.


The scene outside the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa in the early morning compared to the afternoon is literally as different as night and day. Considered the most sacred and important Buddhist temple of Tibet, at dawn it was surrounded with quiet Tibetan pilgrims praying and prostrating in front and around it, solemn and pensive. By the afternoon however, it was thronging with tourists, mostly Han Chinese. The temple, a tourist haven, was filled with selfie sticks and loud chatter in overflowing souvenir stores.


China is heavily promoting tourism in the region as it plans to attract 24 million tourists this year and 35 million by 2020. It opened the week-long Third China Tibet Tourism and Culture Expo on 10 September 2016, inviting more than 400 overseas guests including ambassadors, diplomats and merchants from all over the world. According to local reports, tourism revenue accounted for over 27.5 percent of the region's gross domestic product in 2015 where a record 20 million tourists contributed 28 billion RMB (3.73 billion euros) to Tibet's tourism industry. The large influx of tourists however come mainly from within China itself. In contrast, foreign tourists make up little of the number of visitors as they can only visit in authorised tour groups and need to apply for special entry permits and visas before being allowed to enter the region. It is even more difficult for foreign journalists to visit with only a few government organised tours over the years since the 2008 Tibetan unrest.


The central and western regions of Tibet had been incorporated into China as the Tibet Autonomous Region since 1951 while the eastern parts were integrated as Tibetan ethnic autonomous regions in Sichuan and Qinghai. While tensions regarding the political status of Tibet still persists in many parts of the region, Chinese officials maintain that the communist party freed ordinary Tibetan people from traditional serfdom and brought economic growth and development to the backward area.


Though tourism undisputedly brought much needed infrastructure investment, development and jobs to the region, there are fears that little of the benefits will flow to the Tibetan people while eroding local cultures and causing environmental damage. Tour agencies and even taxis are mostly operated by Han Chinese settlers while cultural performances veer towards favorable Chinese history and propaganda. An example of which is the large scale outdoor performance 'Princess Wencheng' that credits the Tang dynasty princess with bringing Buddhism and Chinese civilization to Tibet in the 7th century.


In the prefecture city of Nyingchi or Lingzhi in the southwest region of Tibet, local government officials proudly showcased a sparklingly new though mostly unoccupied Tibetan 'folk village' and luxury hotel to journalists on a government organised reporting trip. Reporters were also brought to Zhaxigang village where Tibetan farmers and herders have been encouraged to join the tourist boom by building homestays for tourists in their family homes. One of them is La Mu, who has 25 available beds in her family home well decorated with posters of former Chinese Communist leaders. She claimed her income has multiplied thanks to tourism but at the time of the visit, the village seemed empty of visitors.