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28. Jan 2011

ISSN: 1864-1407

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Tourism booming in the TAR

No sector of the economy in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has experienced such a dash for development as tourism. Even the unrest that shook Tibet in spring 2008 appears to have only slightly slowed down the relentless advance of the industry. The majority of the tourists are ethnic Chinese (Han) who undertake relatively short trips to Tibet. Handled wisely, tourism could become a major source of wealth for local Tibetans, particularly since their unique lifestyle is one of the main attractions for visitors. However, while there are some visible benefits for average Tibetans, as a whole, a significant economic impact upon Tibetan society at large is so far not apparent. Some Tibetan initiatives to establish eco-tourism in rural regions met a certain success. However, the lack of capital, skilled manpower and experience have so far hampered the development of such initiatives and prevented them from progressing to any satisfying level. In addition, there are significant flaws in the way tourists are accommodated and serviced, and developments in infrastructure to do not appear to be in any way commensurate to the demand.

According to figures covering the past five years presented by TAR governor Padma Choling during the annual session of the local People's Congress, (the parliament that rubber stamps policy from Beijing), the region received 1.9 million tourists during 2006, a figure that more than doubled to 4 million in 2007. While arrivals fell to roughly 2.5 million during 2008, the year of the unrest, numbers surged to 5.56 million in 2009 and reached 6.82 million in 2010. Taking these figures at face value, it means over 20 million tourists visited the TAR between 2006 and 2010. In 2011, 7.5 million tourists are expected in the province, a figure that may double to 15 million by 2015. In comparison, the entire Tibetan population of the PRC accounts for roughly six million, with about half living in the TAR.

Tourism revenue was 2.03 billion yuan (£195m; $308m; €225m) in 2006 and 4.85 billion (£465m; $737m; €8m) in 2007. It went back to 3.5 billion yuan (£336m: $532m; €388m) in 2008, just to surge again to 5.24 billion (£503m; $796m; €581m) in 2009 and 6.93 billion (£665m; $1.05bn; €769m) in 2010. Revenues of 7.6 billion (£727m; $1.15m; €843m) are expected for 2011. In comparison, over the same period - 2006-2010 - the TAR had a local fiscal revenue of 12.6 billion yuan (£1.2bn; $1,9bn; €1.4bn), while it received 7.57 billion yuan (£723m; $1.15bn; €840m) of aid from mainland provinces, municipalities, government organisations, state firms and other institutions, and 1.7 billion yuan (£162m; $258m; €188m) was spent by the central and TAR governments on free medical services.

The railway factor

A key element in the development of tourism was the opening of the Golmud-Lhasa railway in July 2006, which had carried 380,500 passengers to Lhasa by October 2006. By the end of 2007, eighteen months after it had opened, more than 5.95 million people had travelled on the railway. This passenger flow accounted for the most substantial share of all tourists visiting the TAR during the period. The first passenger train from Shanghai to Lhasa began its journey in October 2006, carrying 592 passengers. The advent of the cheap railway tickets not only relieved pressure on air services, it also forced down prices making the region more accessible by air as well.

Decades ago, it was foreigners that made up the largest group visiting Tibet, but in recent years, roughly 90% of the tourists are arriving from within the PRC. Although they are mainly Chinese, Tibetans themselves are increasingly using the new infrastructure to visit different parts of the plateau. In 2007, the region received 365,000 foreign visitors or 210,500 more than in 2006. Japan had replaced by then the United States as the largest source of overseas tourists to Tibet and accounted for 78,000 of the visits, over five times the figure for 2006.

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In the Golmud-Lhasa railway.
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The new airport in Dartsedo/Kanding.
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A Potala replica in an ethnic park i...
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Tourist vehicles at Namtso.

The huge and increasing growth in tourism at times raised concerns even among the authorities who, in March 2007, identified potential problems due to limited reception capacities. In July of the same year, Yang Kaizhong, an economist at Beijing University who headed a planning team for sustainable development of tourism on the Tibetan plateau, said a classification system for access to the region had been formulated. This includes 'no entry', 'entry limited', 'free entry', and 'encouraged entry' sections. It is not entirely clear what the exact criteria was used to define this classification and how entry policies are actually implemented, but considering the fragile TAR environment, international experts unanimously agree to the necessity of keeping tourism within regulated zones. Yang also said they expected 85,100 hotel rooms to be needed along the railway by 2020.

There have been concerns that sensitive buildings like the Potala palace in Lhasa might be too frail to withstand continuous visits by large crowds. This raised led to some singular suggestions, like the proposal made in March 2007 by Lhasa's party chief Qin Yezhi to build a miniature replica of the palace at the foot of the hill beneath the real palace. According to Qin, the TAR government was also considering moving some cultural relics into a new building separate from the Potala. This raised some concerns about maintaining the integrity of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Tourist in Tibetan attires in front o...
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Tourist in Tibetan attires in front o...
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Tourist in Tibetan attires in front o...
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Tourist in Tibetan attires at Namtso.

Unstoppable growth

Any optimism within the industry, however, was cut short as, following the outbreak of the unrest of spring 2008, tourist arrivals initially dropped spectacularly. Divergent figures have been advanced about the exact number of arrivals during that year. The most frequently quoted figure, which is also that of official statistics, shows visitor arrivals in the TAR at nearly 2.25 million, a significant decline against 2007, with tourism revenue more than halving from the previous year.

Following the crisis, the authorities and tourism industry were quick to announce a wide range of measures to revive tourist trade. In October 2008, Wang Song Ping, Vice Director of the TAR Tourism Bureau announced price reductions over the period 20 October 2008 to 20 April 2009. The admission fees to most major natural and cultural spots were also cut by half. In December 2008, the TAR Tourism Bureau extended these discounts by halving travel and hotel costs in order to lure visitors. Additionally, the TAR arranged a 50 million cash injection in 2008 to rejuvenate the industry. This all helped to make sure the development of further infrastructure relevant to tourism was not hampered. The new airport in Dartsedo (Chin: Khangding) Kardze (Chin: Ganzi) in Sichuan, a gateway to the Tibetan plateau was opened as per schedule in October 2008.

On balance, it appears that the Tibetan unrest failed to have any lasting effect on the enthusiasm of visitors for Tibet. The flow of tourists restarted in the summer season despite continuing travel bans in certain regions. Whereas there were only 340,000 tourists in the period between January and June 2008, from June to August another 370,000 travellers arrived in Central Tibet. Statistics from the TAR's Tourism Bureau show that by November 2008, Kongpo/Nyingtri (Chin: Linzhi) prefecture received 24,000 domestic and foreign tourists, an increase of 4.8% over the same period in 2007. In November and December, traditionally the low season, there was a 20% increase compared to the same period in 2007, a development which travel operators attributed to the official promotion of winter travel to Tibet.

Lhasa however took some more time to overcome the crisis of spring 2008. It received only 105,000 tourists in November 2008, a decrease of 4.62% compared with the same period in 2007. According to Champa Kesang, director of the management committee of the Potala palace, the Potola received about 830,000 tourists and pilgrims during 2008, down 27% year-on-year. This could indicate that, although visits to the religious sites of Central Tibet are the highlight of most Tibetan tours, many people are equally keen on visiting rural areas. Another interesting development is that the launch of the first luxury train (the 'Tangula Express') from Beijing to Lhasa had to be postponed in March 2009. This suggests that the majority of travellers to Tibet, Chinese or foreigners, are not searching for a luxury holiday, but rather want to experience the plateau's unique landscapes and ethnic settings on a relatively low budget(1).

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Tourist restaurant in Shigatse.
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Tourist accomodations in Lhasa.
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A Hotel in eastern Tibet.

Quantity and quality

In 2009 and 2010, tourism development continued to grow. In July 2010, Air China launched its first direct flight between Beijing and Lhasa. From January 2010 onwards, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has been encouraging domestic and foreign airlines to establish flight routes to the TAR. The Ngari Gunsa airport in the westernmost prefecture of the TAR became operational on 02 July 2010(2). A ten-year plan for the development of tourism was published in May 2010 by the TAR Tourism Bureau, which anticipates the annual number of visitors reaching 20 million by 2020. This level would be completely unsustainable, even with the current rate of infrastructure development.

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Souvenir stalls in Shigatse.
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Photo-girl at namtso.
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Selling prayer flags at Namtso.
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Souvenir stalls at Namtso.

The manifold effects of the rapid development of tourism in the TAR remain unpredictable. Official reports emphasise that the development brings unspecified benefits to average Tibetans. A widely publicised report released in summer 2009, for instance, alleged: "By now, 4,664 families of 34,979 people have engaged in the tourism industry, and each family can earn an annual income of 13,066 yuan (£1,250; $1,984.90; €1,450.84)". Such purely statistical values hardly reflect reality, and the ethnic composition of those who benefit from the industry is anything but clear. Observations, however, reveal that Tibetans who live close to tourist hotspots do generate some income, mainly from tourist entertainment. The Tibetan share in more elaborate services remains low and the large numbers of immigrants in the industry cannot be ignored. Besides, experience in Tibetan areas outside the TAR, where tourism has been present for some years in advance of the TAR, suggest caution.

The documentary 'Kokonor' by Tibetan filmmaker Dorje Tsering Chenagtsang (Jangbu), shows how local Tibetans on the shore of the Kokonor/Tso Ngonpo/Qinghai lake have become tolerated supernumeraries on their own land following the monopolisation of tourism infrastructure by Chinese immigrants. Instead of going to school, Tibetan children spend days outside hoping to snatch a pocketful of yuan by taking photographs with, at times, disrespectful tourists, in order to help their families to make ends meet. The beginnings of similar developments are already visible in the TAR, for example at Namtso lake. This increasingly popular destination is an example of how within a few years a sacred landscape in pristine environment has become a littered place with hundreds of tourists visiting daily, thus changing perhaps forever the unique natural and cultural setting that the tourists have come to experience in the first place. The speed of development of tourism in the area raises questions about its sustainability. Besides, the quality of accommodation and of the services offered is very low.

Notes:
1: In Lhasa however, high-end tourism is likely to play a more important role. Luxury hotel chains are under construction.
2: See: Opening the gate to Kailash; www.tibetinfonet.net/content/update/163

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Comments
 
 

Bubble With the growing of Dalai Lama and Tibetan sgrtgule's popularity, Tibetan students will be getting more and more opportunities to make themselves as a educated freedom fighters in nearby future. It is extremely important to use these programs as what funding committees expected at the beginning. Because all these opportunities have created with the blood of our freedom fighters inside Tibet and the hand folding-sweats of our aged spiritual leader. CTA s ambitious dream of ten thousand professionals has started its long journey, Lets see how many successful achievers will come out of it ,,,,,,,,

Posted by Bill on 14 May 2012 at 16:33

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