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IHG isn’t targeting western tourists as much as it’s appealing to Chinese tourists’ preference for brand-name hotels they recognize. Still, if this boycott catches on IHG will become very busy on the PR front and will likely wonder if it’s really worth it.
The campaign, led by Free Tibet and backed by Students for a Free Tibet, wants IHG to withdraw from the project in the Tibetan capital, arguing the hotel is a “PR coup for the Chinese government” given concerns about human rights in the region and will exacerbate Tibetans’ marginalisation.
Opposition to the InterContinental Resort Lhasa Paradise – which is due to open in 2014 and is currently under construction – comes amid growing concern about the impact of rapid development in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Officials believe tourism is essential to Tibet’s future and have set a target of 15 million visitors a year by 2015. China’s state news agency Xinhua reported that the number of tourists increased by more than 20% to 10.6 million in 2012, compared with the previous year, while revenue rose by 30% to 12.65bn yuan (£1.4bn).
But campaigners say the rapid growth is eroding the region’s heritage and culture and has benefited Han Chinese more than Tibetans.
In July, the authorities announced plans to build a £3bn theme park in Lhasa, saying it would reduce pressure on heritage sites.
More recently, a tourist posted photos apparently showing the construction of a shopping mall complete with underground carpark on the Barkhor, the route pilgrims take around the Jokhang temple, in the heart of the old city. In December the government of Lhasa said it was embarking on a 1.2bn yuan upgrade of the Barkhor area’s infrastructure that would help to preserve the city’s ancient heritage.
Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, Free Tibet’s director, said: “The presence of an upscale multinational brand such as InterContinental gifts priceless PR to the Chinese regime responsible for gross human rights abuses throughout Tibet.
“InterContinental’s marketing portrays Lhasa as a paradise and trades on images of an ancient Tibetan culture which in reality is being systematically destroyed by China.
“IHG and China will take the profit: Tibetans will wash the dishes. InterContinental Hotels are parasites in their so-called paradise.”
IHG held a meeting with Tibetan support groups after the plans were first announced in 2010. Free Tibet declined an offer of a second meeting, saying it did not believe it would be productive unless IHG answered a detailed list of questions – such as how the economic benefits to Tibetans would be maximised.
An IHG spokesperson said: “We take our commitments to human rights and creating local economic opportunity very seriously. All IHG employees have signed on to our code of ethics and business conduct and our human rights policy.
“As a managed hotel, the InterContinental Lhasa will be held to our high operational standards and policies, which include recruiting, training and developing hotel staff. 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.”
There is already a 250-room St Regis resort in the Tibetan capital, but the new project is on a far larger scale.
Beijing says that criticisms of its human rights record in the region are “groundless” and that it has invested heavily to raise incomes and living standards. The average urban household income in the region rose from just under 12,000 yuan in 2007 to just over 18,000 in 2011, while the rural income rose from almost 2,800 yuan to around 4,900 yuan. Xinhua reported last month that the Tibetan economy grew 12.2% year-on-year in the first quarter.
The Tibet government office said it was not responsible for handling queries on the region’s tourism strategy. The Lhasa government office could not be reached and the Lhasa tourism office referred calls to the marketing department, where no one answered.
The new resort is being opened in partnership with the Chengdu Exhibition and Travel Group. A press spokesperson there, Wu Zhiming, said the resort was still under construction.