Tibet is seeing a boom in Chinese visitors, meaning that the government's latest ban on foreigners following self-immolation protests against Beijing's rule has barely dented the region's tourism industry.
The Chinese government typically closes Tibet to foreigners during periods of unrest, and tourism of any kind plummeted after riots against ethnic Chinese in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in 2008. But domestic tourists are still allowed, and the government has wooed them in recent years with deep price cuts, direct flights and more train services.
Hotels catering to Chinese tourists in Lhasa are doing brisk business. With its pristine, yak-grazed grasslands and snowcapped mountains, the Tibetan plateau provides a stunning getaway for many urban-dwellers.
“I was attracted by the natural environment here. The blue sky, clean air and water make me feel like I am really enjoying life here,” said Feng Junyuan, 26, a freelance editor from the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou who was reached by phone at a hostel in Lhasa.
Staff from restaurants around the Potala Palace, once home to the long-exiled Dalai Lama, say their tables have been filling up with Chinese tourists, chatting and snapping photos during their feasts.
“The pace of life is slow and the people are pure and it is totally different from what we see in big cities like Beijing and Guangzhou,” Feng said, adding that he visited several monasteries during his trip. “Some days, I can spend three hours just sitting quietly on the corner of a street here.”
A Tibet tourism policy targeting domestic travelers who are less likely to sympathise with anti-Beijing sentiment reflects China's desire to both develop the region economically in hopes of winning over its ethnic Tibetan population and keep a lid on embarrassing reports of unrest.
The most recent ban on foreigners came after a wave of self-immolation protests reached the Tibetan capital late last month, although the government has not publicly acknowledged the restrictions.
“I suppose that they don't want any presence in the case of protests or more self-immolation,” said Andrew Fischer, a China expert at the Institute of Social Studies at the Hague in the Netherlands. “They're going back to old-school, old-style control over foreigners to control information. I suppose they don't feel the same threat from the Chinese public.”
State media has said international travelers are continuing to visit Tibet each day while the Tibet Tourism Bureau says foreign tourists are still welcome.
However, tour companies and hotel operators in Lhasa said Chinese authorities imposed a ban on travel permits for foreign tourists starting this month.
“We were told by company management not to receive foreign tourists since June 1, no matter whether they are coming individually or in groups,” said a man surnamed Liu who works at the China International Travel Service in Lhasa.
Though the foreign tourists are missed by some businesses - especially high-end ones - they now amount to a tiny portion of the overall visits, given the surge of Chinese tourists.
Foreigners accounted for just 30,000 of the 1.45 million visitors to Tibet in the first five months of this year - or around 2 percent of all tourists, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing the Tibet Tourism Bureau.
“I don't think that small, very marginal loss (from foreign tourists) would be of any importance to them in the larger strategic picture of what they're trying to do,” Fischer said.
The past year's wave of more than three dozen self-immolation protests against Chinese rule did not erupt inside heavily policed Tibet itself, but in ethnic Tibetan parts of other provinces in China. It finally reached Lhasa in late May when two men set themselves on fire in the popular Barkhor market.
Photos later posted online showed a Western-looking foreigner watching one of the men in a cloud of smoke as others extinguished the flames. The latest foreigner ban started days later.
Such bans are usually delivered orally to tourism industry leaders, apparently to avoid issuing documents that could embarrass officials eager to project a sense of calm and control.
Foreign tourists trying to book Tibet trips over the border from Nepal have been denied permits since May 28, according to travel agent Pradip Pandit in the Nepalese capital, Katmandu.
The Chinese government sees tourism as a key way of bringing money into the chronically poor region. A signature project inaugurated in 2006 - a $4.2 billion high-speed rail project that zips over mountain passes - can whisk travelers from Beijing or Shanghai to Lhasa in about two days.
But after violent riots in 2008 in which Tibetans attacked Chinese migrants and shops, torching parts of Lhasa's commercial district, the government sealed off the region. Overall tourism that year fell by nearly half, while the number of foreign tourists fell by 80 percent. To try to draw the crowds back, authorities halved prices for tours, hotel rooms and entry tickets for the Potala.
Last year, the number of Chinese tourists jumped 27 percent to 8.4 million while that of foreign tourists grew 19 percent to 270,800, raking in 9.7 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in tourism revenues, official statistics show.
The foreigner ban is hurting Tibet's handful of luxury hotels, including Lhasa's Jardin Secret Hotel where rooms go for up to $335 a night. “Our occupancy rate is relatively low at the moment because we don't have many domestic guests,” said a staffer who gave only his surname, Xu.
But many establishments are thriving. All but a fifth of the 80 rooms at the three-star Tibet Mansion in Lhasa are occupied, said an employee surnamed Liu. The hotel's guests are mostly domestic travelers. - Sapa-AP
* Associated Press writer Binaj Gurubacharya in Katmandu contributed to the report.