Tibet Closed to Foreign Tourists

In the midst of an ongoing wave of self-immolation in Tibetan regions of China, including two recent and unprecedented cases in the political, spiritual, and cultural center of Lhasa, travel agents are reporting a state ban on foreign tourism in Tibet. While Beijing has closed the region to foreign visitors many times in the past, doing so during peak tourist season is not common – the Tibetan economy relies heavily on tourism, and last summer saw a major spike in tourist revenue. The Telegraph reports:

The ban comes ahead of the peak season for travel to the troubled region – the month-long Saga Dawa festival began on Monday – and could affect hundreds of British travellers due to visit.

If verified, the move is likely to be seen as a response to a protest by two Tibetans last month, who set fire to themselves outside Jokhang temple in Lhasa, a Buddhist shrine that receives thousands of visitors each day.[…]

Several Beijing-based tour operators have since claimed that the Chinese tourism bureau has asked them to stop taking foreign visitors to Tibet.

“The tourism bureau asked us to stop organising foreign groups to Tibet in late May. We don’t know when they will lift the ban,” an employee at the Tibet China International Tour Service told AFP.

AFP offers possible reasons for the ban, via tour guides and travel agency employees:

While the official reason for the ban was not immediately clear, one agent said it could be linked to the Saga Dawa festival, which celebrates the birth of Buddha in the Tibetan calendar.

“It was halted in late May. People said it was because of the… festival,” an employee at the Tibet China Travel Service said.

The festival traditionally sees Buddhist pilgrims flock to Tibet to mark the month-long celebration, which began on June 4 this year – a date that coincided with the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on democracy protests.

Another agent from the Tibet China Youth Tour Service said the ban might also be linked to the “recent social order problem”.

On their public affairs blog, the University of British Columbia posted an interview with renowned Tibet scholar Tsering Shakya, discussing many of the sensitivities that may have led to the travel ban. Shakya discusses self-immolation, the anticipated succession of the Dalai Lama, the possibility of changes to Beijing’s Tibet policy after the upcoming leadership transition, and other Tibet related issues:

Why are monks and nuns turning to self-immolation?

“In the past year, more than 36 Tibetan monks and nuns have burned themselves to death to protest Chinese rule. Not only is this a more extreme form of protest, it is a major new challenge for China. By its very nature, this kind of act is much harder to control or punish than mass demonstrations. How do you stop someone from lighting themself on fire?

“China will view this as a Tibetan escalation of this situation, supported by the Dalai Lama. But much of this results from the lack of proper channels in China for people to voice their grievances to the authorities, without fearing for their safety. We have recently seen self-immolation elsewhere, in places such as in India, Tunisia and Greece, so this new style of protest is a global trend.”[…]

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