In Pictures: Tibet’s historic sites at risk due to tourism boom

Tourism is booming in Tibet.

More and more Chinese are travelling in-country because of the coronavirus pandemic, but this poses risks to the region’s fragile environment and historical sites.

“The biggest challenge for us is the contradiction between the protection and usage of the cultural relics,” Gonggar Tashi, head administrator of Potala Palace, said.

At the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lamas, the number of visitors allowed daily is limited to 5,000.

Balancing demand from the millions of visitors who come there every year with the need to minimise wear and tear on the massive hillside structure is a constant challenge, Tashi said.

2020 saw a 12.6-percent increase in tourists from the previous year, said Ge Lei, deputy director of the China Tourism Marketing Association.

He expects the number of visitors to roughly double by 2026.

The glut of visitors, far exceeding Tibet’s population of 3.5 million people, means caution is necessary to protect the environment and culture, he said.

Among the most popular natural sites in Tibet is Namtso Lake, ringed by snow-capped peaks and Buddhist shrines, with yaks and migrating birds on the horizon.

Further development of the site must be done carefully to avoid damaging what makes it attractive, Ge said.

“It will be hard to protect the ecology and culture of Tibet… if we don’t have a long-term plan,” he said. “So it is very important to establish a set of values and rules of behaviour for travel in Tibet while building the facilities.”

As the country’s focus shifted from international to domestic visitors, Tibetans have at times complained about Chinese tourists disrespecting cultural traditions, including stepping on prayer flags, Emily Yeh, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder said.

The shift came as China’s middle class has grown, Yeh added.

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