US lawmakers urge Blinken to ban travel to China’s Xinjiang

They also ask 3 US travel agencies to stop offering tours to the region so as to avoid perpetuating ‘atrocity crimes.’
By Roseanne Gerin for RFA
2024.03.07
US lawmakers urge Blinken to ban travel to China’s Xinjiang Performers welcome tourists in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Sept. 4, 2023.
Wang Fei/Xinhua via Getty Images

UPDATED at 3:59 P.M. ET on 03-08-2024

Two members of the U.S. Congress have sent a letter urging Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to ban American citizens from traveling China’s far-western region of Xinjiang so as not to “perpetuate and conceal atrocity crimes” that China is committing against Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities living there.

“​​American citizens and permanent residents, companies, and other entities should be warned about the risk of enabling atrocity crimes if they participate in tourism to the XUAR,” Rep. Chris Smith and Sen. Jeff Merkley, co-chairs of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, or CECC, wrote in the letter.

They said the State Department’s travel advisory for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, or XUAR, should be raised to Level 4 – do not travel.

They also wrote letters to three U.S. travel agencies asking them to stop offering trips to the region.

The CECC is an independent American government agency that monitors human rights in China.

Chinese authorities tightly control who enters Xinjiang, where harsh repression of Uyghurs and other Muslims in recent years has amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity, according to the United States, the United Nations, the parliaments of other Western countries and human rights groups. 

Uyghur rights groups have denounced Chinese-government approved travel to Xinjiang as “genocide tourism,” saying that they help China conceal its persecution of the 11-million strong Uyghur people.

Actors perform at the Grand Bazaar, a popular tourist destination in Urumqi, capital of northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Aug. 28, 2023. (Wang Fei/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Actors perform at the Grand Bazaar, a popular tourist destination in Urumqi, capital of northwestern China's Xinjiang region, Aug. 28, 2023. (Wang Fei/Xinhua via Getty Images)

While the State Department does not issue a separate travel advisory for Xinjiang, its advisory for China is at Level 3 – reconsider travel to the country due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions.

The letter warned that individuals with a Turkic or Muslim background who travel to the XUAR face the risk of wrongful detention, enforced disappearance, exit bans and other serious human rights abuses.

In response to the letter, a State Department spokesperson told RFA on Friday that the department does not publicly comment on specific Congressional correspondence, though the U.S. condemns the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.

The spokesperson went on to say that the department considers many factors to determine travel advisory levels, but that its analyses are undertaken without regard to bilateral political or economic considerations.

Travel agencies asked to stop tours

The Uyghur Human Rights Project, or UHRP, based in Washington, said in a January report that at least 18 European travel companies offer tours to sites in Xinjiang connected to the repression religious beliefs, the destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage, surveillance, imprisonment, torture, sexual assault and deaths in custody.

Smith and Merkley said Chinese authorities are investing heavily in promoting tourism in the Xinjiang while continuing to subject Uyghur and other Turkic residents there to unjust detention, forced labor and religious repression.

In separate letters, Smith and Merkley asked U.S. travel companies to stop offering tours that include visits to Xinjiang. They include Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel Ltd. of Sparks, Nevada; Geographic Expeditions, Inc. of San Francisco, California; and Abercrombie & Kent USA LLC of Downers Grove, Illinois.

All three companies were named in an August 2023 UHRP report.

“Make no mistake: under the current circumstances, tourism in the XUAR serves as a conduit for Chinese authorities’ repression of Turkic and Muslim peoples and facilitates the destruction and appropriation of their heritage and identity,” the letters said.

“It is our strong belief that well-intentioned tourists should not be put in the position of condoning or supporting atrocities – or be used as propaganda pawns – allowing the Chinese government to cover up its genocide and crimes against humanity,” they said.

The two CECC leaders also noted that conducting tours in places where genocide is occurring is antithetical to Wild Frontiers’ own commitment to responsible tourism. 

The company issued a statement in August 2023, saying it was “conducting a full investigation” of tours in the region. 

Smith and Merkley asked company founder and chief executive officer Jonny Bealby to provide information about the status of the investigation and how it was being conducted, saying they were compiling information for future reports and a congressional hearing where they may request his testimony.

Potemkin tours

UHRP senior researcher Henryk Szadziewski, who lived in China for five years, including a three-year period in Uyghur-populated regions, said the letters represent an “important ask” from the three travel companies.

“First of all, there’s obviously the issue of profiteering from these tours,” he said. “So, while people in the Uyghur region are facing what many very reputable bodies call potential crimes against humanity, these tour companies are taking tourists through that region.”

Second, the companies’ marketing portrays Uyghurs as “a folkloric people, very pre-modern  that if you, take one of these tours, you'll go back to a magical time on the Silk Road, when it really is very much a Chinese government narrative of Uyghurs,” said Szadziewski, who wrote the UHRP reports.

“The Chinese government narrative of Uyghurs is as folkloric means that they are in need of some kind of development.”

CECC staff director Piero Tozzi called the trips “Potemkin tours” where tour operators take travelers to places the Chinese government wants them to see, but not the ugly side” of Xinjiang, such as concentration camps where Uyghurs are being detained.

“We think that this is unacceptable, that essentially they are profiting off of genocide, and they are subsidizing it, they're contributing to it by going to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”

Additional reporting by Kurban Niyaz for RFA Uyghur. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

The story was updated to include comments from Henryk Szadziewski, Piero Tozzi and a U.S. Department spokesperson.

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