According to several travel agents, Chinese authorities have closed Tibet to foreign visitors after months of unrest and protests. This ban comes as the troubled region reaches its peak travel season with the month-long Saga Dawa Festival, which started on Monday, June 4. The decision to deny foreigners entrance could affect hundreds of British holidaymakers’ plans.
If the travel agents are right, the decision is likely a response to a protest by two Tibetans at the end of May. The pair set themselves on fire outside Jokhang Temple in Lhasa (pictured). This is a Buddhist shrine that hosts thousands of travellers every day. Since March last year, 37 people have carried out similar protests, but this was the first recorded self-immolation tried in Lhasa, which is a popular city with foreigners.
Police immediately put the fires on the two men out, and one of them survived. Following the incident, hundreds of people were detained in Lhasa. Chinese security forces are said to have detained about 600 residents and pilgrims in the wake of the self-immolations. Then the capital city was put under even tighter security than it had been. Lhasa has been kept under strict security since the breakout of deadly anti-Chinese government riots in 2008.
Since this most recent incident, several tour operators in Beijing have claimed that the tourism bureau in China has asked them to stop taking visitors to Tibet. A Tibet China International Tour Service worker told reporters that the tourism bureau asked them to stop organising foreigners late last month. People say it’s due to the festival, the employee added, and they don’t know when the ban will be lifted. Despite this, neither the Chinese Tourist Board or Chinese Embassy in London have confirmed the reports.
The Saga Dawa Festival traditionally sees Buddhist pilgrims gather in Tibet to mark the anniversary of Buddha’s birth. The June 4 date this year coincides with the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown on democracy demonstrations in 1989. However, a Tibet China Youth Tour Service agent says that the ban may be linked to the recent problem of social order.
This isn’t the only time that visitors have been banned from going to Tibet, as it usually happens during religious festivals and periods of unrest. Tour operators reported last June that Chinese authorities put a ban on foreign tourists until the end of July while the country prepared to celebrate its 60th anniversary as ruler over the region. Foreign visitors were also barred from entering Tibet in 2008 after violent protests in Lhasa. The ban was lifted for the Beijing Olympic Games, however.
Even when tourists are allowed to enter Tibet, tours are monitored closely. Foreigners have to apply for a special visa and are accompanied by a guide appointed by the government. All foreign tour operators also have to make their tour arrangements through Chinese companies.
There is much tension in Tibet, as citizens accuse the Chinese government of trying to diffuse their culture. They are also worried about what they believe is increasing domination by the Han ethnic group, which is a majority. However, the government says living standards have clearly improved since its rule began in 1951.
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