Gathering information on taking a trip to Tibet can be puzzling; facts are hard to come by, rules and regulations are in constant flux and misinformation abounds. So today, let's try and clear up some of the uncertainty surrounding Tibetan travel restrictions that swirl every year around this time, and have only been complicated by the events of the last few weeks.
You may have heard a thing or two about the recent unrest in regions of western Sichuan and Tibet and if you follow a variety of media outlets both Chinese and foreign, then it's likely you've heard some conflicting stories. The one thing that you've almost certainly heard is that, with more and more reports of self-immolation and violent clashes between Tibetans and central government forces, things are by no means calm in the areas of China with a large Tibetan presence. What is less clear is the implication this will have on foreign tourism in the region.
China Daily reports that groups of pro-secessionist Tibetans are storming banks, stores and attacking police officers and their vehicles across the prefecture of Ganzi in western Sichuan. As a result of this aggression, officers have found it necessary to fight back with deadly force. The editorial pages at the newspaper allege that, per usual, the Western media is distorting the truth to fit their anti-China and pro-independent-Tibet aims. The Global Times agrees. Read on for information about the 2012 Tibetan travel restrictions for foreigners...
As is to be expected, the New York Times article on the unrest tells a different story. But the question of which news outlets are surviving on half-truths is not up for debate here. The stories of violent repression, allegations of cut telephone wires and disconnected internet are disconcerting but not surprising. What's more, these recent developments in Tibetan affairs are the icing on the cake in terms of the annual winter-closing of Tibet and the Tibetan areas of the surrounding provinces for foreign tourists.
Last year the province was closed to foreigners because the area was, simultaneously, too cold and too crowded. In the last few days, the details of the 2012 closure have begun to make the rounds of Tibetan travel agencies: it seems that Tibet will be closed to foreign travelers from February 20th to March 30th. Every winter season, a time that includes Losar (Tibetan New Year) and a score of politically sensitive Tibetan anniversaries, the Chinese tourist administration ceases to issue foreign travel permits for an indeterminate amount of time. Last year, there were two separate bans, lasting for a total of over three months.
As of yet, there is no official announcement surrounding the closures, and therefore no official explanation as to why. It's a safe bet, though, that the official reason will be of little substance (A New York Times reporter that attempted to travel to Western Sichuan was told last week that he couldn't proceed because "there [was] thick ice ahead"). Jamin York (or Losang, depending on where you're from), who runs the excellent website Land of Snows, had this to say about the current situation when I emailed him early this week:
For now, Tibet and the surrounding regions are on high-alert and tension is running hot. If you were planning on taking a trip to Tibet this winter, chances are you may need to reschedule; though the ban is still three weeks away, expect difficulties and possible extensions of the closure on either end of the ban. Keep in mind that any changes will likely have little or no notification, so no matter how diligent you are about staying up to date on the policies, changes will be sudden and could put a kink in your plans; be flexible, or be content with going somewhere else for vacation. Luckily for those with a thirst for travel and no patience for logistical uncertainty, China is enormous and has a boatload of wonderful places to visit. For the next few months, Tibet may have to stay on your bucket list.