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Tourism industry in Tibet gears up to boost local economy
By Li Xiaoyang  ·  2020-09-04  ·   Source: NO.37 SEPTEMBER 10, 2020
Self-driving tourists visit Changtang National Nature Reserve in Shuanghu County, 700 km northwest of Lhasa, Tibet, on October 12, 2019 (COURTESY PHOTO)
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 couple pose for wedding photos in a peach blossom park in Nyingchi, Tibet Autonomous Region in southwest China, on March 27, 2019 (XINHUA)

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.

New initiatives

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. Besides, resorts featuring health and leisure activities have been built to offer a diverse experience, including Tibetan medicinal baths and hot spring baths.

To prevent pollution and ecological damage that may arise from an influx of visitors, visitor numbers are controlled. Also, the local people are encouraged to take part in environmental protection. Mawang Yutso Lake in Ngari Prefecture is a national wetland and nature reserve. The local government is encouraging residents to participate in tree planting and water management with incentives.

The Mount Qomolangma National Nature Reserve, a popular destination with a fragile ecosystem, controls the number of visitors. While ordinary tourists can go to areas below the well-known Rongpo Monastery, 5,000 meters above sea level, a special climbing permit is needed to go up to the Qomolangma base camp at an altitude of 5,200 meters.

The booming tourism at the reserve has increased the income of villagers who set up tents at the foot of Mount Qomolangma, the highest peak in the world, to provide accommodation for mountaineers and tourists in the peak season. Villagers are also paid for taking part in garbage clean-ups and patrols on the mountains.

The regional government said more than 10 tons of trash was collected from the mountain in spring last year. "The spring clean-up campaign removed 6 tons of garbage from three mountains in the Himalayan range by mid-May," Nyima Tsering, head of the Tibet Sports Bureau, told Beijing-based People's Daily. According to the government, Tibet was one of the regions with the best ecological environment in the world in 2019.

This year, a team to protect local wildlife and environment was formed with around 200 members, who are full-time employees that each can earn about $4,398 in a year. Besides, there are 86 part-time wildlife protectors, also recruited from local villagers.

Travels near home

With the standard of living improving in Tibet, short trips within the region have become popular among locals. To meet the demand of local tourists and also attract people from outside the region, many areas have introduced entertainment and leisure activities in line with Tibetan customs and developed new travel routes and modes. These have boosted the tourism industry and accelerated poverty alleviation.

The number of local tourists usually peaks during traditional Tibetan festivals, like the annual Shoton Festival at the end of the sixth month and the beginning of the seventh month of the Tibetan calendar. During the festival, local people drink yak yoghurt, watch Tibetan opera and enjoy lingka, which means leisure in the woods. At a lingka, people get together for picnics and other entertainments and stay in tents. According to the government of Lhasa, around 3.5 million tourists visited the city during the festival from August 18-25, up 3.38 percent year on year. The revenue exceeded 1.2 billion yuan ($175 million) with a year-on-year increase of 4 percent.

Benak, a village in Lhasa, has developed a lingka tourism industry, which attracts about 150,000 tourists per year. By the first half of 2019, it had five leisure resorts employing over 800 farmers and herdsmen, including 128 people from registered impoverished households. The latter's annual income increased by over 2,000 yuan ($292) per person.

"The village is developing new tourism activities including hiking and horse racing and renovating old houses for building homestays," Badro, First Secretary of the Communist Party of China Benak Village Branch, told Beijing Review, "Ten households have participated in building the homestays, which have been put into trial operation. More rural households are expected to be involved in the tourism industry this year."

The region has also developed modern tourism sites such as the Zhufeng Agricultural Expo Park in Xigaze where tourists can go sightseeing and pick fruits and vegetables, and the hot spring resort in Qabka, a village in Xaitongmoin County. In 2013, the Xaitongmoin government invested over 50 million yuan ($7.3 million) in building the resort, developing hotels with hot springs and Tibetan medicinal care centers. According to the resort, it had over 40,000 tourists in 2019, bringing in a total of 15.84 million yuan ($2.3 million) in revenue. It hired over 50 people from poor households last year.

Untapped potential

But despite the boom, Tibet's tourism revenue was 55.9 billion yuan ($8.1 billion) in 2019, only 0.98 percent of China's total tourism revenue of 5.7 trillion yuan ($832 billion) in that year, according to a report by Zhiyan Consulting Group, a market analysis firm. The report pointed out that it is necessary to improve cooperation between different regions, improve innovation in products and services, and boost industries like accommodation, catering and entertainment to drive the tourism industry in Tibet.

"Tibet will promote domestic tourism by developing more routes and activities and improve online promotion in the second half of this year," Wang Songping, Director of the Tourism Development Department of Tibet, said.

(Reporting from Tibet Autonomous Region)

(Print Edition Title: Journey to A New Height)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to lixiaoyang@bjreview.com

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