The Chinese government’s decision to ease restrictions on travel to Tibet has been welcomed by specialist operators to the region, keen to resume tours to one of the most remote – and controversial – parts of the planet.
There remains some confusion as to exactly what the new regulations entail, but operators understand that a ban on almost all foreign travellers to the region, imposed last June, has been lifted. Although not able to travel completely independently, British travellers will be able to visit the country on organised trips – though the necessity to travel in a group has been lifted.
“This is a very significant relaxation of the restrictions,” said Heather Chan, general manager of CTS Horizons, a China specialist. “It has been very frustrating having to tell people wanting to go that the terrotory was effectively closed. There are so many who want to see those stunning lakes and snow-capped mountains.”
The holy grail for all travellers to Tibet is the Potala Palace, the dramatic Buddhist temple carved into a hillside occupying pride of place in the capital, Lhasa. It was the home of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader until he left for exile in India in 1959, following the incorporation of Tibet into China.
The ban on almost all travel to Tibet was imposed following renewed protest over Chinese rule. In one act of defiance two Tibetans set fire to themselves outside Jokhang temple in Lhasa, a Buddhist shrine that had been receiving thousands of foreign visitors each day.
China had forbidden foreign tourists to visit Tibet before, usually following periods of unrest or during religious festivals. Overseas tourists were prevented from travelling to the region for several months in 2008, following violent protests in Lhasa – that ban was lifted before the Beijing Olympics.
Even when foreigners are permitted into Tibet, tours are closely monitored, travellers must apply for a special visa, and they will be accompanied by a government-appointed guide. All foreign tour operators must make their arrangements through Chinese firms.