Chinese tourists crowd Tibet’s Lhasa amid COVID surge in Chinese provinces

Chinese tourists must show only negative COVID tests, while Tibetan travelers are often barred from entry.
2021.10.25
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Chinese tourists crowd Tibet’s Lhasa amid COVID surge in Chinese provinces A Tibetan pilgrim prays next to a Buddhist shrine in Tibet's regional capital Lhasa, June 3, 2021.
AFP

Tourists from China are pouring into Tibet’s capital Lhasa in large numbers despite a surge in COVID-19 cases in Chinese provinces that has seen authorities ban tourism in areas outside Tibet, sources in the region say.

A spike last week in COVID cases in 11 Chinese provinces has led China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism to announce tightened restrictions on travel into worst-hit areas, with tourism entirely suspended in some locations, government sources said.

Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa is still left open to tourism, however, sources in the city told RFA in recent interviews.

“There is a huge number of Chinese tourists at the moment in Lhasa,” one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Barkhor [old town] area is especially full of Chinese tourists, who are taking pictures everywhere.”

“It’s frightening to see such large crowds here when the pandemic hasn’t ended yet,” he said.

Occasional large-scale protests against China’s rule have left Tibet’s capital city often barred for entry to Tibetans coming from outside, with pilgrims and other travelers required to show permits in order to visit, another source said.

“And yet, despite the climb in COVID cases, Lhasa has been flooded with Chinese tourists,” he said.

“In the Tibet Autonomous Region, government employees, students, and retired state workers are banned from making religious visits to the Potala Palace,” the former residence of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, the source said.

“But one can see that Chinese tourists are free to visit these religious places.”

“These acts by the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party violate China’s official commitment to religious freedom,” he said.

Lhasa’s famous Jokhang Temple, located in the city’s center, is also open to Chinese tourists, said another Tibetan source, adding that Chinese tourists are now flocking to Tibet’s historic capital city. “But they are only being asked to show negative COVID test results,” he said.

Taking extra precautions

Chinese tourists visiting northwestern China’s Qinghai province, part of Tibet’s historic Amdo region, have recently tested positive for COVID, the source said.

“So Tibetans have been taking extra precautions and are avoiding the places where those tourists usually go,” he said.

Kumbum monastery in Qinghai’s Tsoshar (in Chinese, Haidong) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture has been temporarily closed to visitors because of an increase in COVID cases in the region, the source said.

“Local Tibetans are being very cautious right now, but the Chinese government doesn’t appear to be taking the pandemic very seriously. For instance, schools in this area are still open in spite of these surges in COVID cases.”

A formerly independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force nearly 70 years ago, and the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled into exile in India and other countries around the world following a failed 1959 national uprising against Chinese rule.

Chinese authorities maintain a tight grip on the region, restricting Tibetans’ political activities and peaceful expression of cultural and religious identity, and subjecting Tibetans to persecution, torture, imprisonment, and extrajudicial killings.

Reported by Sangyal Kunchok and Taring Tenzin Norbu for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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