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Tibet becoming China's playground

AAP logoAAP 21/09/2016 Rafael Canas

China is focusing on tourism to continue the economic development of Tibet, a region still sparsely visited by foreign travellers.

The region, a hotbed of political and religious conflicts between Tibetan ethnic population and the dominant majority of Chinese Han, is increasingly becoming an attraction for Chinese-organised tours.

Visit by groups of foreign correspondents are normally prohibited from travelling to this region, but a rare one organised by Chinese authorities took place recently to tie in on the Tibet International Tourism and Culture Expo, allowing a glimpse into the effect of tourism development in the region.

According to both Beijing and the Tibet Autonomous Region government, a total of 24 million tourists are expected this year in the region, which will likely generate an income of $US2.9 billion ($A3.8 billion). By 2020, 35 million tourists are expected to visit the region, leading to an estimated revenue of $US7.44 billion.

This is a drastic rise from the less than four million people who visited in 2005. And it's largely thanks to a tourism boom among the Chinese middle class over the last decade, coinciding with the start of the Beijing-Lhasa train service in 2006 and increased number of flights to the Tibetan capital.

Tourism now creates 320,000 jobs, representing more than 20 per cent of the Tibetan GDP, and official forecasts estimate 500,000 jobs, accounting for 25 per cent of its GDP by 2020 - the end of the current Five-Year Plan.

"Tourism has become the most important economic sector of Tibet," Deputy Director of the Tibet Tourism Development Commission, Wang Songping, told the visiting foreign journalists.

However, despite the optimistic figures in this sparsely populated region - 3.2 million inhabitants per 1.2 million kmsq- it is difficult to ascertain the economic effect of tourism on the whole population, especially the Tibetan ethnic group.

The vast majority of tourists are Chinese (95 per cent), as foreigners can only travel in organised groups and the only foreign air connection to Lhasa is through Nepal.

In terms of infrastructure, Wang points out the progressive construction of large international luxury hotels such as the already established Intercontinental, Marriott and St Regis, or the upcoming projects of Hilton and the French Sofitel.

Regional authorities are also encouraging farmers and nomadic cattle rearers to turn their houses into rural cottages and more than 800 families have received grants of up to $US7,426 to renovate their houses, including building toilets or installing solar panels for electricity supply in remote areas.

Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, told EFE that promoting tourism in Tibet is an integral part of the strategic and economic objectives of China and that "Tibetans should be the primary beneficiaries of tourism explosion" in the region.

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