Chinese authorities have blocked foreign travel to Tibet in advance of politically sensitive anniversaries scheduled for some time in July, according to travel agents, Tibet experts, and sources in the region.
Travel agencies in the Tibetan capital Lhasa and in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan cited government instructions to restrict travel into Tibet only to Chinese citizens.
The instruction came ahead of events organized by Beijing to mark the 60th anniversary of the "liberation" of Tibet by China and the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding.
“No foreigners can travel to Lhasa,” a travel agent in Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu, said. “This is a decision by the government. We don’t know why.”
“We don’t know when [the ban will be lifted], but we think it will be lifted after July 20.”
Speaking separately, a travel agent in Lhasa said, “Any travel to Tibet will have to wait until after July 26.”
“No travel agencies will take foreigners into Tibet. There must be something political, something the government does not want them to see,” the agent added.
Large celebration planned
The ban will not only affect foreign tourists but also scholars and researchers conducting studies on Tibet, experts said.
“I’ve heard about it for months now—that June and July will be completely closed,” Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar based at Columbia University, said.
“Some scholars, Western scholars also, have been told they won’t be able to come during that period to do research, and now the travel sites are publishing information saying [Tibet] is closed until mid-July,” Barnett said.
A low-key 60th anniversary observance of Tibet’s 1951 “peaceful liberation” by China was marked in Lhasa on May 23, Barnett said, adding that a much larger celebration may be planned for July in combination with the Chinese Communist Party’s anniversary.
“The celebration of the 60th anniversary is going to be, I think, combined with a celebration for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the [Chinese Communist] Party in 1921,” he said.
“It will be huge. I get reports that people in the work units are having to prepare dancing.”
Date kept secret
Though the date of the Party’s founding is July 1, Barnett said, rumors are circulating that this year’s anniversary will be celebrated on July 20.
“They will probably keep the actual date secret until just a few days before, as a security measure,” he said.
Barnett noted that bans on travel to Tibet are typically put in place before and after important political anniversaries.
“So the question is not, why is there a ban? There’s always a ban for an anniversary.”
“But it’s usually a week before,” he said. “So why now six weeks before, or four weeks before?”
The last time Tibet saw a ban on foreign visits was in March when the official news agency Xinhua quoted a senior Chinese official as saying that the restriction was due to cold weather, a shortage of "capacity" for tourists, and safety concerns.
Since region-wide Tibetan protests against Chinese rule in March 2008, Beijing has prohibited foreigners from entering the territory around the anniversary of those events.
Meanwhile, “huge vacancies” are being reported in the major hotels in the Lhasa area, a Tibetan resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Many Tibetans who came from [the Chinese provinces of] Qinghai and Yunnan were told to return home by the end of June, and Tibetan businessmen without official permits have also been told to leave Lhasa and return to their hometowns.”
“Visitors from Nepal are also banned until the end of July,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan service and by Xin Yu in Hong Kong for the Mandarin service. Translations by Karma Dorjee and Feng Xiaoming. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.