The world’s highest civilian airport, at 4,410m (14,468ft) above sea level, is being built in Tibet by the Chinese government.

Work began on the Daocheng Yading Airport, in the Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Sichuan, in June, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

The airport, likely to cost around £155 million ($237 million), is expected to open later this year and will offer routes through to the western cities of Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming in the south, Guiyang and Xi’an.

It lies 130km (265,000mi) from Yading, an area of sacred mountain peaks and alpine valleys.

There will be one 4,200m (13779ft) runway and around 500,000 passengers are expected to pass through its gates annually, Xinhua said.

The construction is the latest project implemented in Tibetan regions by a Chinese government that hopes to attract one million tourists and raise up to two billion yuan in tourism revenue by 2015.

It claims the work will increase employment opportunities for Tibetans and bring prosperity to the area.

But the development has drawn a rash of criticism from pro-Tibetan groups, and there was an outbreak of violence close to the site of the new airport last month.

Tibetans who had gathered to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday were shot at and beaten by Chinese troops, according to the campaign group Free Tibet.

“This is no holiday destination,” said Alistair Currie, the group’s spokesman. “What China does in Tibet, it does for China, not Tibet.

“More than 95 per cent of visitors to Tibet are Chinese and business interests are dominated by Chinese immigrants or existing Chinese companies. The economic benefits of these kinds of developments almost always flow out of Tibet.

“For China, Tibetan culture and landscape is a resource to be exploited: the reality is that true Tibetan culture is severely repressed.”

He said that responsible tourism, targeted to benefit Tibetans, can help, but that this kind of development is very unlikely as long as China remains in charge.

“Tibetans don’t protest or set themselves alight – as around 120 have done – for jobs or economic opportunities,” he added, “they want freedom.”

Anger at plans for a new 5-star hotel in Lhasa by the InterContinental group led to a protest outside the hotel group’s property in Park Lane, London, in June.

IHG said it had met with Free Tibet campaigners in the past to listen to their concerns.

Last July, Chinese authorities announced plans to build a theme park in Lhasa which would create a “living museum” for Tibetan culture and relieve pressure on existing attractions in old Lhasa. This was also met with opposition.

Tags: china, tibet
Photo Credit: The Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Sichuan. Ken Marshall / Flickr