For Gu Lifeng, who runs a self-driving club in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province in northwest China, August signaled fresh opportunities as he set out for a new tour to Tibet Autonomous Region in southwest China. The route started from Xi’an, passed through Qinghai Province and arrived at the Changtang National Nature Reserve in north Tibet. “The self-driving route developed by the county government of Shuanghu in Tibet is the only one to the area open to tourists for now. The highest altitude in the county is 5,728 meters, and the scenery is spectacular,” Gu told Beijing Review. The ride is surprisingly smooth as Tibet’s infrastructure and tourism services have phenomenally improved, with fewer checkpoints and more hotels providing better services, he added. It’s a testimony to how the tourism industry is playing an increasingly important role in driving the region’s economic growth.
A place with views
With its pristine natural scenery, over 23,300 cultural heritage sites, including the famed Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, and distinctive customs, Tibet is a magnet for tourists from home and abroad. Realizing the potential, a regional tourism bureau was set up in 1986 to boost the industry.
In recent years, many new leisure activities have been started, such as the Peach Flower Tourism and Culture Festival in Nyingchi Prefecture in southeast Tibet, a popular tourist destination with its abundance of peach trees, mountains, canyons and glaciers, as well as operas based on Tibetan folklore, such as Princess Wencheng, which depicts the wedding of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) princess to a Tibetan king and the intermingling of different cultures.
According to data from the regional government, Tibet received over 40 million visits in 2019, up 19.1 percent year on year. The number included around 500,000 from abroad, a 13 percent increase. The tourism revenue was nearly 55.92 billion yuan ($8.2 billion) last year, up 14 percent year on year. More than 100,000 farmers and herdsmen engaging in the industry have gotten better off. Despite the impacts of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), 8.33 million tourist visits were made to Tibet in the first half of this year. Since March, more than 300 natural scenic spots have been reopened to tourists. While the tourism market in many domestic regions has not yet fully recovered, in Tibet, tourism industry experienced year-on-year growth of about 27 percent in May and 36 percent in June, according to the Tourism Development Department of Tibet Autonomous Region.
One reason for the growth is the improved infrastructure. More than 778 million yuan ($112 million) has been invested in various tourism projects since the beginning of this year.
To reduce the impacts of the epidemic, the regional tourism department launched live-streaming in February to present key tourist attractions. Also, in partnership with a private company, Guangdong Provincial Tourism, it promoted Tibetan products such as yak meat through live-streaming.
Due to the epidemic, the Peach Flower Tourism and Culture Festival in Nyingchi this year was live-streamed in March. “We live-streamed it for 10 days, round the clock, attracting over 30 million viewers,” Tenzin Samdrup, chief of the Tourism Development Bureau of Nyingchi, told Beijing Review. Since June, the city also distributed coupons for restaurants and hotels worth 5 million yuan ($733,000) to attract local visitors.
As the epidemic abated across China, self-driving tours began to increase. Tibet is the only region in China that has seen positive growth in self-driving tourists from May, with a 27-percent year-on-year increase in the month.