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    Herders to hoteliers: China lures millions of tourists to Tibet

    NYINGTRI, CHINA (AFP) – In a room warmed by an open wood stove, Baima said her family converted their white-brick house into a hotel as China’s Communist leadership ushers tens of millions of tourists to the region of Tibet.

    Surrounded by mist-covered mountains, nearly 500 kilometres from the capital Lhasa and close to a border with India, most of the houses in her remote village of Tashigang have followed suit and turned into homestays.

    “We used to live a life of herding and farming,” the 27-year-old told AFP. “Then the government encouraged us to run a hotel.”

    The villagers – who speak the Tibetan language – have been given Mandarin classes to help them accommodate the Chinese guests whose arrival has boosted their income.

    But critics warn the surge of visitors risks eroding traditional ways of life.

    “Opening hotels is not as hard as herding,” Baima said, from her home packed with ornate wooden furniture and brightly painted walls.

    Tourism in Tibet fits with one of China’s key aims – poverty alleviation – but also, experts warned, follows a pattern of co-opting and reshaping outlying areas with a history of resistance to Beijing’s rule.

    People in traditional costume standing in front of the Potala Palace – classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994 – in the regional capital Lhasa, in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. PHOTOS: AFP
    A villager at her hotel in the village of Tashigang in the city of Nyingtri

    Thirty-five million tourists flooded into the region last year, 10 times the entire population of Tibet.

    That has prompted warnings that the influx could overwhelm traditional lifestyles and values.

    “The cultural degradation that is involved in this case of hyper-managed mass tourism spectacle is very worrying,” said Robert Barnett of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

    “It’s hard to identify though, since of course there is benefit for Tibetans in that trade; what is harder to quantify is the damage.”

    Waves of mainland travellers have flocked to the region, attracted by the scenery, air of mystique and multitude of new transport links.

    Many dress in traditional Tibetan outfits and pose outside cultural landmarks in the capital city of Lhasa.

    Baima’s hamlet has 51 family hotels, according to officials, tying the bulk of its residents to the tourism industry.

    “The government organises cultural training, national common language training (and) catering industry training,” party official Chen Tiantian told a crowd of reporters on the state-organised trip, insisting the programmes were “voluntary”.

    “Now 80 per cent of the people in the village can communicate in Mandarin,” she added.

    Baima’s neighbour Cangjie, wearing an identical traditional dress with embroidered sleeves, said their lives have changed.

    “With the arrival of outsiders, we are… exposed to new things,” she said.

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