Today in my Twitter feed, an article was shared about the plans by the Lhasa government to build a brand new theme park 1 mile away from the city that projects a particular version of Tibetan culture and history which is acceptable to the authorities. The official reasons given for the project include improving the Tibetan capital’s attractiveness to tourists, be a landmark for its cultural industry and reduce tourist pressure on the Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor in the heart of old Lhasa.
In recent weeks, other related stories concerning Tibet have also been circulating, like the plan to build 22 model villages where locals can host tourists for home-stays, more investment in Tibet’s tourism infrastructure or the announcement that train capacity to Lhasa from major Chinese cities will be increased. At the same time, I have read about land slides blocking the highway to Tibet and the Western media is widely reporting about self immolations by Tibetans protesting.
What to make of all of this?
I am not stepping into the political debate about self determination rights, as it will require a thick book to be written just to list the arguments on both sides. I want to deal with the current reality in which a very remote and poor place with a fragile eco-system is desperate for jobs, education and increased living standards. The political unrest is hurting the economy and China has recently blocked foreigners from visiting Tibet, indefinitely.
There is no doubt in my mind that among those proposing tourist development in Tibet on massive scale there are people who genuinely believe that the tourism revenue raised will help local people. There are of course also greedy developers and corrupt officials at every step that expect massive profits from the development and management of these attractions.
I am speaking about this subject from 3 different perspectives:
1. As a Western tourist in China that visited some similar theme parks and ‘model villages’ that included home stays but also real authentic home-stays.
2. As a tourism professional that promotes destinations and has sold travel to Chinese tourists
3. As someone who thinks a lot about sustainability in tourism and travel and wants to see the industry take a long term, inclusive view of its development and profits.
Regardless of your political views on Tibet, I think everyone agrees that people living there should be able to earn a living wage and receive proper education to have better chances in life. Tourism does have a good potential of leaving more money in the local economy compared to many other industries. Tibet was ‘discovered’ as a tourism destination by foreigners but these days, nearly 10 million Chinese visit there every year and the Chinese government plans for this to increase to 15 million by 2015. Foreigners currently cannot go, and when they are allowed, they need an additional permit beyond the China visa and their visits are monitored.
So the inbound industry in Tibet relies really solely on Chinese tourists. Domestic tourism in China has been booming as the middle class continues to grow. It still relies mainly on large organised tour groups but there is a rising niche of independent, intrepid travellers that go trekking, camping, bird watching etc. and are much more aware of their effects on the local community and environment when they travel.
Places like Tibet, Sichuan or Xinjiang in Western China have a very fragile environment made worse by global warming. It is home to many minority groups that have fascinating cultures that are very different from that of Han Chinese. That is what attracts Chinese to visit there. That is what needs to be preserved and protected if people 5 years, 10 years down the line still want to enjoy and learn from visiting these areas.
There are places where mega-projects and fun theme parks probably work ok – close to cities with a large population that needs leisure time distractions. Where the visiting pressures are so high that facilities must be built to accommodate the demand. I would argue that it is folly to say ‘Chinese people want theme parks so we build them’ when I have seen how many Chinese people change their views after spending time travelling and being exposed to different cultures and are made aware of the fragility of certain areas.
People in position of power and authority need to think of the future. Places of natural beauty belong to humanity and it is our collective responsibility to keep it beautiful for future generations. Local communities who have lived there for hundreds or thousands of years usually know instinctively how to care for nature and need to be consulted and given power to make decisions.
I have seen this work in other places in SE Asia and also in China. By limiting numbers of visitors and focusing on authentic experiences delivered by local guides and communities. revenue is still coming in. Less people who pay more and spend more time in the area.
A theme park that purports to communicate culture will never take the place of getting know people who truly live their culture.
A new-build village that gives a mockup of life does not give the same feeling to visitors as an actual village where people live and work normally. It is possible to combine tourism (albeit at a smaller scale) with other revenue generating activities. In fact, it is necessary because tourism is both seasonal and volatile.
China is still learning about tourism development and there are many excellent examples from around the world on how to do it right. I just hope that the learning curve will be as fast as it has been with industry and commerce.