China Reportedly Stops Issuing Some Tibet Travel Permits
By James Ruggia
September 14, 2012 1:43 PM
China has stopped issuing some travel permits for Tibet for the second time this year, although apparently larger tour groups with less complex itineraries are still being granted access to the destination. Without making an official announcement of any change in its policy, the Chinese government has left tour operators guessing about access to the region on a visit-by-visit basis.
As one operator, who requested anonymity put it: “I had a group of six that was recently denied access, but at the same time large groups of 20 or 30 travelers that are doing set itineraries of the three nights Beijing/two nights Lhasa variety are getting permits.”
While China has given no official reason for tightening Tibet entry requirements, tensions in the region have been running high of late. Indeed, there are several factors that may have Chinese leaders on edge about Tibet. First, there will be an overall change in Chinese leadership in October when China’s ruling Communist Party hosts its 18th Party Congress, which will result in an official power transition, the biggest of which will come when Xi Jinping replaces Hu Jintao as president of China.
Another factor is the upcoming 15th meeting in Dharmashala, India, of Tibet’s so-called “parliament in exile.” China’s leaders have always considered Tibet’s exiled government, located in northern India, as a provocation. In addition, recent political tensions have led to hunger strikes and self-immolations in Tibet.
“My understanding is that no formal announcement has been made saying there will be no new visas issued to Tibet,” said Guy Rubin, managing director of Beijing-based Imperial Tours. “There are groups going to Tibet in September and October who have their permits already. That said, because of the upcoming 18th Party Congress, security across the country is being tightened. This happens routinely every October. However, this year’s Party Congress is particularly sensitive because of the change in leadership.”
Rubin said he expects that it will be harder to get new Tibet permits for visitors, but it might not be impossible. Nevertheless, visitors might be advised to delay travel to Tibet until after the Party Congress when security will be relaxed. “After separatist groups leveraged the PR surrounding the Olympics to advance their cause, China subsequently has been sensitized to this tactic during times of intense media coverage,” Rubin said. “So now it is doing what it can to limit the possibility of any repetition of that during the high-profile upcoming Party Congress.”
For some operators, the change in Tibet travel policy is nothing new. “These policies are implemented from time to time,” said Bob Drumm, president of General Tours World Traveler. “It could be for a number of reasons that may not be obvious to outsiders. Certain times are more restrictive than others.”
Some tour operators said travel by foreigners within Tibet seems to be proceeding, while others say otherwise. In the spring, the Chinese government imposed rules that allowed only groups of at least five, all from the same country, arriving and departing on the same flight, entry into the region.
That means tour operators need to be ready with alternative destinations if their groups are denied entry to Tibet. “When we run into these limitations some clients cancel and some agree,” said Rosalie Doustan, managing director of Orient Flexi-Pax. “We often divert them to Zhongdian, known as the Shangri-La region, an area of high mountains and Tibetan culture.”
“It’s never an official statement,” said Patricia Cuneen, president of EastQuest. “We are always learning these things from the travel agencies and hotels we do business with inside China. We’ve been having problems all summer. It’s part of the power transition. The old government wants to hand the new government an orderly situation.”
Since China opened to travelers in the 1970s, the country has always reserved the right to limit the regions that travelers could visit. Tour operators hope the Tibet situation will return to normal after the new Chinese government settles in after October. “Since 2007 the situation on the Tibetan plateau has been tense and I certainly hope both sides can sit down to resolve their grievances,” said Rubin. “I don’t believe the obstacles to doing so are insurmountable and I hope there is a likelihood for a new direction to the Tibetan policy coming out of the upcoming party conference. Let’s hope so.”