Close Encounters: "Intimate" Tourism in Tibet

The rise - and fall - of ethnic/adventure tourism in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China has been disastrous for indigenous and outside tourism investors, the host society, and liberal Chinese policy. "Intimate" tourism (tourism that places novel and extraordinary demands for goods and serves on a neophyte host community) in Tibet is not sustainable, primarily because the immediate host - the Tibet Autonomous Region - is politically disenfranchised. Although tourism development in Tibet provided a certain economic independence for Tibetans, it was not accompanied by increased political self-determination; tourism merely aggravated the already tense animosity between Tibetans and their Chinese occupiers. Tourism promoters and even consumers share an ethical responsibility to understand their impact upon Tibetan society.

Pros and Cons of "Intimate" Tourism

Many critics of intimate tourism development warm of the dangers to the immediate host society. The arguments are familiar: the ethnic/adventure tourism industry can turn exotic cultures into commodities and individuals into amusing "objects" for tourist "consumption." Over time, novel encounters become routine for both host and guest, and cultural "presentations" become more and more removed from the reality of everyday life. The jaded tourism marketeers then move on to other groups as yet unaffected by tourism.

Materially, tourism places severs ecological burdens upon fragile resource systems (as in Tibet - see Tuting 1988). Some governments, such as those in India and Bhutan, have highly restrictive policies toward foreign visits to tribal or frontier peoples. They fear that tourism might lead to wholesale degeneration of native artistic traditions, rapid and unmanageable culture change, denigration of the environment, and an assimilation and loss of cultural identity.

Conversely, some tourism analysis have noted more positive responses to the presence of outsiders in isolated regions. Occasionally traditions have been revitalized by such visits (see McKean 1977; Nornonha 1979). Marginal societies can often find economic niches through tourism that can help build group solidarity and strength identity. Such benefits appeal to both tourism promoters and native entrepreneurs.

However, any assessment of the impact of ethnic/adventure tourism must take political consequences into consideration. Bolstering native concepts of self-identity can contribute to a growing political consciousness, provoking confrontation with dominant regional powers. "Exotic" people rarely have political power at the national level and are even targeted for assimilation by central governments. In Tibet, the object of ethnic/adventure tourism was often the Tibetans themselves, a people whose distinctiveness has been continually rubbed out by Chinese policy.

China Opens Its Borders

Westerners' desires to visit "mysterious, forbidden" Tibet were finally given vent with the opening of China in 1978. Initially China permitted only a few thousand travelers a year to visit the Tibet. Autonomous Region, and then only under careful supervision and at great expense to the tourists. There was minimal contact between foreign gusts and Tibetans, and Westerners were carefully preserved in a protective bubble designed by the Chinese host, usually through the China International Tourist Service (CITS). Restricted tourism in Tibet provided a small but welcome source of foreign exchange to the official Chinese establishment while minimizing the socioeconomic impact on local inhabitants.

This situation radically changed in late 1984. No doubt sensing the great economic potential of less restrictive tourism, China opened the Tibet Autonomous Region to independent travelers. Liberal officials believed that the potential profits of tourism could replace decades of governmental subsidization of the Tibetan economy since the Chinese occupation in the 1950s. Opening tourism in China's most problematic region could demonstrate to the world a widespread government commitment to economic liberalization. In the spring of 1985. China opened the overland route linking Kathmandu, Nepal and Lhasa, Tibet. Within a period of one and a half years, Tibet witnessed a tenfold increase in visitor count (Andersson 1987:11). This figure doubled in 1987, rising to approximately 44,000 tourists per year (Wilhelm 1988).

In late 1987, a series of nationalistic uprisings rocked the Tibetan cities of Lhasa and Shigatse. Independent tourist were subsequently discouraged and were steered toward official CITS tours. All tourism was banned after Chinese military and police forces violently suppressed the demonstrations in Lhasa in March 1989, which culminated in a declaration of martial law. There are indications that some highly restricted groups will be allowed into Tibet in the future.

Can tourism be implicated in this most recent episode in the Tibetan tragedy? The Chinese apparently overlooked two crucial factors in their decision to open Tibet to unrestricted tourism: the motivation of Western tourists and the Tibetan response to curious foreigners. Most tourists wanted to participate in Tibetan life and view the great monuments of Tibetan Buddhist culture, desires that were readily satisfied by their cordial Tibetan hosts. As such, tourism became a stage, and tourists an audience, on which Tibetans could articulate the repressed frustrations of decades of Chinese occupation.

Grassroots Tourism

Tourism was a contributory, not a causal, agent in the recent rise of nationalism in Tibet Economic reforms begun in the late 1970s allowed for the development of independent tourism throughout China Central policy liberalization began to release; Tibetans in Tibet from decades of severe repression; almost immediately they responded by expressing nationalistic sentiments. By the mid-1980s, both trends were not collide in Tibet, with unforeseen and unintended consequences. On the one hand, the Chinese have accused tourists of being outside agents for "spilttist" Tibetan nationalists. On the other hand, many Tibetans have perceived tourists as source of apparently boundless Western support for their cause of self-determination. Tourists became pawns in an increasingly strident propaganda campaign between Tibetan nationalists and Chinese officials.

By easing travel restrictions in 1984, China and its CITS agency lost a substantial number of group tourists to the local sector (Klieger 1989). Many visitors preferred to see Tibet and its inhabitants untouched by the hand of time and the years of Chinese occupation. By the mid-1980s, many Tibetans were presenting an image of themselves that understood the cultural differences between China and Tibet. The Chinese, conversely, have always tried to present Tibet as a perpetually integral part of the Chinese nation, a region where "superstitious" religious expression should play no part in the governance of the state. The Chinese argument, however, became increasingly untenable as visitors seized ever-increasing opportunities to interact with local inhabitants. In true Marxist fashion, the Chinese marketing strategy was designed to show evidence of benevolent material progress subsequent to the rein-corporation of Tibet into the Motherland. This strategy did not sit well with the increasing numbers of ethnic/adventure tourists, however, who wished to reaffirm their Shangri-la images of flying lamas, the wild nomadic life, and the yak and the yeti (abominable showman).

Private enterprise in the Tibetan tourist industry, then, thrived in the mid-1980s. State control over labor eased as the collectives in Tibet were dismantled. Individuals were given a certain freedom of movement and opportunities for private and semiprivate investment. Local entrepreneurs built small hotels, shops, and travel agencies, all catering to the independent tourist. Tibetan guides organized and led small group visits to isolated monasteries and nomadic encampments, expeditions to sacred sites such as distant Mt. Kailas, and rafting trips. Excursions by yak or on horseback were popular.

Influences from Southern Asia

This grassroots development was influenced by the success of tourism on the southern slopes of the Himalayas. Tourism in Nepal witnessed a phenomenal growth during the 1970s, and tourism today rivals Tibetan refugee rug production as that country's leading industry and source of foreign exchange. Significantly, the southern Asian tourist establishment has become increasingly dominated by Tibetans - either refugees of members of long-established Tibetan-speaking groups such as the Sherpa. The present market demands reality and intimacy. Tourist marketing has shifted from "routine" bus tours and trekking expeditions to trips that provide eve-increasing novelty and intimate contact with people as yet unaffected by the din of mass tourism.

The introduction of this development model to Nepal's northern neighbor was perhaps facilitated by yet another unanticipated consequence of Chinese liberalism. From the early 1980s onward Tibetan refugees could visit their homeland without any obligation to repatriate. The easing of travel restrictions in Tibet suggested an immense expansion of the Himalayan tourist market to many refugee entrepreneurs and foreign-based Himalayan tourism promoters. By the mid-1980s hundreds of refugees were returning to Tibet for extended visits, encouraged in part by the employment opportunities in the Tibetan tourist market (Klieger 1989; Klieger and Liker 1988). Often fluent in English, with broad experience in dealing with the expectations of foreign tourists in southern Asia, many Tibetan refugees were in great demand by local tour operators. Common business goals helped to reunite the extended Tibetan community, and together, refugee and homeland Tibetans established a viable, competitive alternative to official Chinese tourism. Their prices for food, lodging guides, and transportation were considerably cheaper than those offered by CITS. More importantly, this grassroots development possessed an asset that the Chinese could never provide - the potential for realistic "native experiences" for the ethnic/adventure tourist. Such intimate tours were heavily promoted in Kathmandu and abroad.

Tourism and Nationalism

The rapid growth of tourism provided a certain level of economic independence for many Tibetans. Many young refugees from southern Asia were attracted by employment opportunities in the tourism sector and encouraged by the easing of travel and trade restrictions. Homeland Tibetans were free to indulge in an unheard-of form of free enterprise. However, these opportunities were soon met with the consternation of their respective conservative establishments. The departure of young Tibetan exiles from refugee settlements in southern Asia has greatly destabilized the unity of the refugee communities. Suspicions grew as exiles moved back and forth between Tibet and southern Asia; individual' patriotic motives were questioned. Some refugee critics suggested that tourism would be the "final solution" to China's Tibetan problem, and that Western influence would destroy those last remnants of traditional culture that somehow had escaped China's heavy hand. Some Chinese officials became equally suspicious of native response to tourism in Tibet, worrying that the economic self-sufficiency arising from the grassroots development of tourism was contributing to a growing nationalism. Loss of political control was one product of economic liberalization that the Communist party would not tolerate. Chinese reactionaries responded by eliminating independent tourism in Tibet.

Although many outside tourism promoters and individual tourists might not wished to actively contribute to the Sino-Tibetan polemic, the basic nature of tourism seems to have suggested to many Tibetans a degree of support for their nationalistic cause. Ethnic/adventure tourism in particular places large numbers of curious and often sympathetic outsiders within the daily milieu of local life. Following a long-term pattern of categorizing interested outsiders as potential patrons, Tibetans in southern Asia as well as in the homeland readily accommodate visitors into the fabric of traditional society. A patron is expected to provide a certain amount of support for his or her client, support that need not be limited to material considerations. Political empathy is often solicited. Tourism, too, seems structurally similar to religious pilgrimage (Graburn 1977), a motivation with which many Tibetans readily identified. These nexuses no doubt contributed to a Tibetan assumption that foreigners sympathized with their plight. In exchange for polite hospitality, Tibetans often expected tourists to spread the news at home of the horrors of Chinese occupation. Many have - no doubt fueling the Chinese condemnation of unsupervised tourists for their apparent participation in there nationalistic demonstrations that have rocked Tibet since 1987. Tourists' accounts of the Chinese repression of the uprisings have filled the media and have been read on the floor of the United States Congress. Former tourists have formed networks and human rights advocacy groups in attempts to increase worldwide awareness of the Tibetan issue.

Ethnic/adventure tourism in southern Asia has been a significant factor in maintaining a separate Tibetan identity and in continuing exile nationalism. It provides economic and ideological stimuli for the processes of enclavement and serves as a bulwark against assimilation. It is possible that ethnic tourism provided similar ideological support for homeland Tibetans. Hordes of tourists, whose main rationale for visiting Tibet was to meet the people of a legendary land, provided a sensitive audience for the pleas for Tibetan independence. These pleas were accentuated by the parallel existence of the officials Chinese tourist establishment, whose presentation of Tibet as an integral, modernizing region of China seemed ever more glaringly propagandistic.

Tourism in Tibet, far from being an immediate factor for the destruction of native traditions, had become a temporary and largely unintended agency for their support. In retrospect, a sustainable development of tourism in Tibet was predicated upon continuing economic reform and the promise of political liberalization. A similar argument might be made on the status of tourism in China proper in the wake of the brutal repression of the prodemocracy movement. "Sustainability" is desirable for ethical as well as financial reasons. Tourism promoters should consider - as should other developers - the sociopolitical impact of their activity in addition to environmental and economic considerations. If tourism is considered the "route to modernization," outside developers might have certain clout that could require host governments to provide guarantees that any economic benefits accruing from an indigenous group will be matched by political freedom as well.


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Klieger, P.C.

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Klieger, P.C. and K.A. Liker

1988 Tourism, Politics and Relocation in Tibet. Cultural Survival Quarterly 12(4):17-19.

MeKean, P.

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Wilhelm, K.

1988 China Says Tibet Is Open, But New Rules Will Cut Off Backpackers. Honolulu Advertiser. 19 April.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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