China reopens Tibet to tourists ahead of games

Thursday, June 26, 2008

BEIJING -- Tibet reopened to foreign tourists Wednesday, three months after the Chinese government banned such visits in the wake of violent anti-government riots and protests that tainted the image of the country ahead of the Olympics.

The first foreign tourists, a retired Swedish couple, arrived at the airport near the capital, Lhasa, on Wednesday, said Tibetan Tourism Bureau spokesman Liao Lisheng.

"Tibet is open now to all travelers from home and abroad," he said.

Kurt Persson, 77, and Eva Sandstrom, 62, were welcomed with traditional Tibetan white silk scarves at their hotel near the sacred Jokhang Temple, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

"We've been looking forward to visiting Tibet for many years. Its monasteries and landscapes are fascinating," Xinhua quoted Sandstrom as saying.

The five-day trip is their first to Tibet, Xinhua reported. "We have no worries about the safety here," Sandstrom said. "The only worry was to get the permission to come."

Closed after rioting

The Himalayan region has been all but closed to the outside world since the biggest protests against Chinese rule in two decades exploded into rioting March 14 in Lhasa, leading Beijing to swiftly shut off the area.

Troops also flooded into predominantly Tibetan communities in nearby provinces, where sympathy demonstrations were occurring. They performed drills in town squares and set up checkpoints around sensitive areas. Officials said the restrictions were established for the safety of foreign tourists and journalists.

China says 22 people died in the anti-government protests. But overseas Tibet supporters say many times that number were killed in the riots and the resulting security crackdown.

A notice on the tourism bureau's Web site announcing the lifting of the ban said life in Lhasa had returned to normal.

"Tibet's society is stable and harmonious, its markets bustling, and its environment beautiful," it said.

But there are still signs of tension.

Hundreds of alleged perpetrators have been arrested in the last three months, with many sentenced to years or life in prison for their role in the protests.

Buddhist monasteries -- seen as incubators for anti-government sentiment -- remain subject to searches by police and monks are forced to undergo political indoctrination against the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. The Drepung monastery remains closed to visitors.

Accessibility unclear

And despite the lifting of the ban, it's not clear how accessible Tibet really is, given that foreign visas to China are being restricted in the run-up to the Aug. 8 Beijing Olympics, said Michael C. Davis, a law professor and China expert at Hong Kong's City University.

"In name, they could lift the restrictions but still have them across the board," he said.

Foreigners need a separate permit from an official travel agency to enter Tibet and are required to hire a guide for travel outside Lhasa.

"If they don't have an agenda, like separating the country or trying to cause damage, then the foreign tourists can have an entry permit," said Liao, the tourism bureau spokesman.

Last week's Olympic torch run through Lhasa was carefully orchestrated after it was cut to one day from the original three. Crowds were monitored by security agents and only a few hand-picked foreign journalists, who even under ordinary conditions must apply for permission to visit Tibet, were invited to cover the event.

The three-hour relay was apparently completed without incident.

It had been considered a flashpoint amid criticism by overseas Tibetan activist groups who accuse Beijing of using the event to symbolize its control over the region. China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially independent for much of that time.

The March violence and tourist ban have taken a major toll on Lhasa's economy, which has become increasingly reliant on tourism since the start of rail service nearly two years ago.

Hotels in Lhasa said they'd had almost no customers recently.

"We've had zero business since the Lhasa rioting, not even a penny," said Deji, the manager of booking at Hotel Kyichu in Lhasa. She refused to give her full name, a possible sign of continuing nervousness over being identified by authorities as a troublemaker.

Deji said it will take at least three years for business to return to normal, and that half of the hotel's employees had changed jobs or stayed home since March.

Tibet had 4 million visitors in 2007, up 60 percent from the previous year, Xinhua reported earlier this year. Tourism revenue hit $687 million, accounting for more than 14 percent of the economy.

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