Updated at 3:26 p.m. EST on 2012-08-27
A rapid increase in tourism is damaging the environment around a high-altitude Tibetan holy lake, environmentalists have warned, amid a tide of growing concern over the exploitation of the region's sacred natural sites.
Local officials announced in June they would begin tourist boat trips on Yamdrok Lake, which lies less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and is one of the three holy lakes of Tibet.
Local media reports at the time said that the local-government-backed Tibet Qomolangma Tourism Development Company had inaugurated a sightseeing boat called "Qomolangma I," as well as transported two ferries and several small-sized speedboats from inland China, according to media reports.
"We will put all our effort into attracting tourists to come and experience for themselves what it’s like to tour the lake," company chairman Dawa was quoted as saying at the time.
The news sparked a public outcry, with environmental campaigners winning widespread support on China's popular microblogging services, according to Liu Jianqiang, deputy editor of China Dialogue.
"It is the largest inland lake in the northern Himalayas—a beautiful natural landscape of mountains and water, a rare sight in this world," Liu wrote in a recent article.
Liu said the fragile ecosystems of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau had already suffered serious damage from mining, dam construction, sand excavation, poaching, and grassland degradation.
"But without a second thought, the tourism industry has joined their ranks," he wrote. "The only difference is that tourism, rather than acting covertly, has swaggered in and brazenly harmed this beautiful and sacred place."
Crucial to traditions
According to Kunga Tashi, Chinese Liaison Officer in the Dalai Lama's Office of Tibet in New York, Tibet's holy lakes and mountains are a crucial feature of the Himalayan region's Buddhist and folk religious traditions.
"When the 13th Dalai Lama went to visit Yamdrok Lake, signs appeared on the surface of the lake indicating Qinghai and the 14th Dalai Lama," he said.
"It was only possible to find the child successor to the 13th Dalai Lama after viewing this writing on the surface of the water."
Tibetans can put up with any amount of economic hardship, Kunga Tashi said, but they will tolerate no disrespect to their religious traditions, or desecration of their holy lakes and mountains.
"The legacy left by every self-immolation revolves around three points: firstly, that there is no religious freedom; secondly, that there is no cultural freedom; and thirdly, that the Dalai Lama should be able to return to Tibet," he said.
Former news photographer and environmental activist Huo Daishan, who received one of the 2010 Ramon Magsaysay Awards for reporting the massive pollution of China's third-largest Huai River, said that any human activity could result in environmental damage.
"Wherever you have people doing things, there you will also have pollution," Huo said. "Particularly when you have large numbers of tourists attracted to an area, this can cause huge damage to the ecosystem."
"As soon as there are large numbers of tourists going there, this will spawn a whole set of other industries in the vicinity of Yamdrok Lake" he said.
"Of course this will destroy the local environment."
Huo called on local authorities, who have reportedly already scrapped the cruise-ship project for the time being, never to open up Yamdrok Lake to full-scale tourism development.
"There is growing support for environmental protection among the people, and this will have an effect on policy-making," he said.
According to China Dialogue deputy editor Liu, ecologically friendly tourism won't be enough to preserve Tibet's ecology, while religious traditions have done a very good job until now.
"Local beliefs in 'holy mountains and sacred lakes' play an important role in conserving the Tibetan plateau’s natural resources; their 'environmental ethics' have provided a kind of invisible protection," Liu wrote.
According to China Dialogue, the "Save Yamdrok Lake" campaign on the Sina Weibo microblogging service that followed the tourist company's announcement soon gained the attention of millions of netizens, with celebrities from the worlds of film and music boosting its profile.
On June 18, it reported, @SaveYamrokLake received a private message from @Tibet Daily: “We are reporting in our morning paper that this project has already been suspended.”
Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly active in support of environmental issues in recent years, putting pressure on governments to implement the country's comprehensive environmental protection laws.
Activists say, however, that environmental officials lack the power to impose the legislation on powerful vested interests at the local level.
Last month, authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan promised to permanently scrap a high-profile copper-processing plant after two days of violent protests from local residents.
Tensions have gripped Tibet since Beijing occupied the Himalayan region six decades ago.
And these have been underscored in recent years by widespread protests—brutally suppressed by Chinese security forces—and by a wave of self-immolations by Tibetans: 51 since February 2009, mostly in Tibetan regions of western China.
But despite Beijing’s harsh policies in Tibet, there is a “growing understanding” of Tibet and sympathy toward Tibetans among the Chinese people, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, said in January.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.