Lhasa Faces ‘Disneyfication’ Specter With Hotel Plan

By Rachel Vandenbrink
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Tourists walk around the Barkhor in the heart of Lhasa's old town in a file photo.
Tourists walk around the Barkhor in the heart of Lhasa's old town in a file photo.

A major international resort group's five-star hotel under construction in the Tibetan capital Lhasa may set the stage for more commercial ventures in the ancient city that will erode Tibetan cultural heritage, an overseas advocacy group has warned.

London-based Free Tibet has launched a campaign to boycott worldwide InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) hotels over the company’s “Resort Lhasa Paradise,” saying the marketing of the 1,100-room project ignores the “oppressive" political situation for Tibetans living there.   

The boycott comes amid similar campaigns by Free Tibet and other groups against a Chinese government-led renovation of Lhasa’s traditional Barkhor old town district outside the sacred Jokhang Temple, as well as plans for a Tibetan theme park on the city’s outskirts.

IHG’s hotel, now being built on the edge of the city some two miles (four kilometers) from the Barkhor area, will bring more Chinese tourists to the area and indirectly spur projects similar to the Barkhor renovation which trivializes Tibetan culture, Free Tibet said.

“At 1,100 rooms, this is by far the biggest luxury hotel in Lhasa and will depend very heavily on Chinese business,” Free Tibet spokesman Alistair Currie said.

“It will foster an increased throughput of wealthy, primarily Chinese tourists … whose interest in Tibetan culture may be limited to or reserved for the ‘Disneyfied’ version of it that China is increasingly propagating.”

'PR' for China

Free Tibet singled out the hotel for the boycott, among other international investment projects in the Tibet Autonomous Region, because it “gifts priceless PR to the Chinese regime responsible for gross human rights abuses throughout Tibet," according to the group.

Beijing has tightened security in the city since deadly riots erupted in Lhasa in 2008, and since 2009, 120 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Chinese rule.

Free Tibet has also raised concerns about the proposed hotel’s employment practices, saying they could discriminate against Tibetans who do not speak Chinese, and its links to a Sichuan real estate magnate who Chinese media reported has been convicted for corruption.

Economic opportunities

An IHG spokesperson said the company had met with Free Tibet to discuss the concerns and that the company believes the hotel—slated to open in 2014—will promote economic opportunities in the region.   

“IHG’s hotels create jobs and drive tourism income in the communities where they operate, thereby helping to increase living standards in Lhasa and wider Tibet,” the spokesperson said.

“We take our commitments to human rights and creating local economic opportunity very seriously.”  

But Free Tibet claims the hotel will contribute to policies that economically marginalize Tibetans.

“Businesses which are Tibetan-owned and which help preserve Tibetan culture can have a positive effect,” for example by using Tibetan language and hiring those who speak it, Currie said.

“But overall, in a repressed and occupied country, it is very hard for any foreign business and especially tourism-related businesses not to directly or indirectly entrench the occupation and help the regime.”

More than 2,000 people have signed Free Tibet’s online pledge to boycott IHG hotels over the Lhasa resort and the group has staged protests outside IHG hotels in London and New York.

Barkhor rebuild

Meanwhile, despite similar online campaigns by overseas rights groups against the U.S.$244 million renovation of Lhasa’s Barkhor district, the U.S.$2.44 million renovation project has been completed, China’s state media reported Monday.

More than 100,000 people had signed a petition by New York-based Students for a Free Tibet calling for a halt to the renovation, and a blog post by Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser titled “Please Save Lhasa” went viral on China’s microblogs before being removed.  

“Lhasa is being destroyed by excessive commercial development,” Woeser said in the May post, which reported that plans for the city also include the development of a 150,000 square meter (1.6 million square feet) shopping mall in the Barkhor, with residents and shopkeepers being relocated.

Last month more than 100 Tibet experts sent a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping and UNESCO saying renovation and new projects in the city were destroying traditional architecture and transforming the Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor into a “superficial tourist spot.”

State media have said the Barkhor renovation project is aimed at modernizing outdated infrastructure by upgrading the sewage system, water supply, and electric lines.

UNESCO has included the Jokhang Temple—considered the most important temple in Tibet—as well as other parts of Lhasa including the Potala Palace—home of Tibetan exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama—on its list of World Heritage Sites.

The temple has been a symbolic center of Tibetan protests against Chinese rule in Tibet and the Barkhor was a center of Tibetan unrest in 2008 that left at least a dozen people dead.

In May last year, two Tibetans self-immolated in front of the Jokhang.

Outside the city, plans are underway for a U.S.$4.8 billion theme park that rights groups say trivializes Tibetan culture and glosses over the political repression in the region.

Beijing has enhanced security measures and tourism restrictions across the TAR in recent years, but the regional government has said it is aiming to encourage tourism in the area.

According to Chinese state media, some 10 million tourists visited the TAR last year and the regional government is aiming to double the annual number by 2015.

The vast majority of tourism to TAR is domestic, with foreign visitors and journalists frequently barred from entering the region.

Comments (1)


from NYC

UNESCO has completely failed Lhasa & the Tibetan people. Despite a petition by over 100,000 people & appeals by many Tibetologists asking UNESCO to take steps to preserve historic Lhasa from Chinese over-development, UNESCO has been silent & refuses to do anything. Is UNESCO simply a vassal of the PRC? Why is UNESCO kowtowing to the Chinese Communist Party? Readers should write letters & emails to UNESCO & until they take action to protect old Lhasa from destruction.

Jul 11, 2013 11:24 AM





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