Responsible tourism in Tibet

Responsible Tourism in Tibet

Travel right in Tibet

Like a particularly determined dog grappling a particularly unwilling bone, China has been chomping at the bit to occupy Tibet since 1949 and by doing so has slowly but surely shrunk its original landmass and diluted its traditional culture. Horror stories of torture towards Tibetans abound and there have been rumours of prohibition where press and human rights are concerned since China’s occupation began, but it is important to bear in mind the power of both propaganda and of sensationalism where Tibet’s struggle is concerned. While, in our opinion, there is no question that Tibet should be free, the solution is never that simple.

Over 100 countries globally have been freed from outside rule in the time that Tibet has been occupied, so it seems less and less likely that China – a country driven by communism and with a particularly tarnished track record where human rights are concerned – will ever allow the independence of Tibet – a country with quite the opposite character. What we can hope for is that while China’s quest for development continues, as much Tibetan culture and traditional practice is retained, and that we can enjoy and support that as tourists for years to come.

People & culture

Tibet vs China

Chinese control: a lack of
Tibetan identity?

Put very simply, China says Tibet has officially been part of the Chinese nation since the mid-13th century and so should continue to be ruled by Beijing. Ever since the Chinese Army marched into Tibetan territory in 1949 attempting to conquer it, there has been tension between the Chinese communist authorities and the peaceful, Buddhist population of Tibet. China has closed 99 per cent of Tibet’s monasteries, jailed thousands of monks, banned all images of their spiritual leader – the Dalai Lama – and significant efforts have been made to supplant the Dalai Lama with a communist-approved alternative. Relations are strained to say the least, so much so that in 2010, the Dalai Lama himself accused China of attempting to “deliberately annihilate Buddhism.”
Sadly, the religious consequences of China’s need to occupy and exert power over Tibet are just one slice of a very long-running and brutal pie. Throughout decades of Chinese occupation in Tibet, over one million Tibetans have died as a direct result of conflict, a conflict that has divided Tibet geographically too – the land claimed by Tibet would be the world’s 10th largest nation, but parts of the original country have been renamed and incorporated into Chinese provinces, hence Tibet’s current identity: Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR.

It’s not just China that feels this way – US president, Barack Obama, has met with the Dalai Lama and urges China to support human rights in Tibet – but insists he does not recognise Tibet’s independence. The UK was previously the only country in the world not to recognise Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, but in 2008 the then foreign minister, David Miliband, reviewed this opinion, to Tibet’s disappointment. Prime Minister David Cameron has since reiterated that the UK government officially recognises China’s sovereignty over Tibet, despite meetings with the Dalai Lama. His meetings with foreign governments are strongly opposed by China.

So – things are not looking too bright for Tibet. In 2014, it was named as one of the 12 most repressed countries in the world and there are now more Chinese people in Tibet than Tibetans – now a minority in their own country. The increasing numbers of Han Chinese settling in the region is causing resentment among the local population.

Understandably, Tibetans see nothing but negative impact from the Chinese and have accused them of suppressing their culture, their freedom of expression and their right to worship whom they want to worship. The communist authorities disagree, with Chinese leaders pointing out – through the example of major infrastructure projects such as the railway linking Lhasa to Qinghai province – that Tibetan areas are much more wealthy under Beijing's rule than they would otherwise have been and there is a significant growth of industry in the region.

The Chinese are a determined people and, in many ways, they should be commended for that, but what it seems they’ve failed to recognise since the 1950s is that traditional Tibet is a people unconcerned with commerce and cash - they are a conservative and contemplative people who want to determine their own futures and who believe in human rights for all – they simply want to be free.

Read more about China’s occupation of Tibet and Tibet’s ongoing struggle via Free Tibet.

What you can do
It seems, particularly where the Chinese are concerned, that this isn’t a case of what you can do, but rather what you can’t. As Westerners, we simply cannot expect to have a completely accurate take on the mindset of the Chinese and the reasons for their actions, which isn’t to say we have to agree, or even understand, but is to say that storming in with our opinions would likely cause more damage to an already vulnerable situation. Knowledge is power here, so if you want to understand Tibet’s plight further and learn how you can help, your first port of call should be Free Tibet, an organisation with a whole host of ongoing campaigns aimed at spreading the word about Tibet and securing the rights of its people. Secondly, visit Tibet – it’s a beautiful and mysterious country with so much culture to share and any support it receives by way of tourism will only ever be a good thing.
Justin Francis, co-founder of Responsible Travel and keen campaigner, shares his thoughts on China’s occupation of Tibet:
“I think there has been a creeping acceptance – not least by the Dalai Lama who has said as much – that China is there to stay and Tibet will never again be independent. My thought would be not to accept that, but to retain the hope that one day it will gain independence. China is moving in its people (to settle in Tibet) and its culture, and Tibet is changing and becoming more like China. However, I have faith in the strength of the Tibetan culture, and in tourism as a way to attach importance to it.”
Photo credits: [Protest: Dechen Tsewang]

Written by: Polly Humphris
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