The intrusive tourist gaze is problematic worldwide. The eye behind the camera captures all, but gives nothing. The camera has licence to enter even private spaces, and sacred places, and snap away, as Tibetan pilgrim prostrate to purify the mind of all accumulated negativities.

The tourist gaze knows no bounds, is free to appropriate anything for later consumption. The camera sees everything and  the eye sees nothing, and connects with no-one, except as object. China’s new Tourism Law, in force from 1 October 2013, has nothing to say about the rights of host communities to protect themselves from the prying, consuming camera eye, or any right to declare sacred spaces off limits. The new Tourism Law is all about consumer rights.

Yet this newly invented Chinese hunger to consume Tibet had its origins in a tide of positive images of Tibet, even including instructions on how to take the best shots.

In the 21st century, the new Chinese representations of Tibet were lyrical, even romantic. The colours were lush, supersaturated. The landscapes were dramatic, evocative of a natural paradise that was the opposite of the urban luxury surrounding the reader. The magazines became glossier, their advertisements for luxury cars ever more upmarket. It was not only for foreign tourists that the Tibetan prefecture of Yunnan province was renamed Shangri-la; Chinese too yearned for a pure land, a Shangri-la of pristine natural purity.

This burgeoning of selective images of Tibet was largely commercial, and quite profitable for magazine and documentary producers in the years before Han Chinese actually took the journey, to take their own photos modelled on the scenes they had drunk in for years. Official slogans meshed with the romantic prose of doco voice-overs, and popular movies such as The Touch, (2002) starring Michelle Yeoh, went even further, making Tibet the source of mystical cosmic truths.[1]

The timing of the rail line into Lhasa was perfect. It began operation in 2006, its single track giving priority to passenger traffic over the occasional freight train. The opening was accompanied by a blaze of nationalistic self-congratulation that China had triumphed in constructing, against all odds, overcoming all obstacles, the highest rail line in the world, through “no-man’s land.” So it became part of patriotic red tourism to take the train, from Guangzhou, or Shanghai or Beijing, all the way to Lhasa.

How did Tibet get such a makeover, transforming it from a dangerous land for revolutionary martyrs to family holiday destination, and the fashionable location for  a honeymoon?

If one visits a bookstore or video outlet in any major Chinese city, there are so many glossy magazines, documentaries and even a Chinese version of The da Vinci Code, a 10-volume 2008 best seller called The Tibet Code. Again, this is quite new. If one looks at the 1990S trilingual compendiums of all books on Tibet published in China, in Chinese, Tibetan or English, there is not even a category for tourist guides.[2] In the bibliography covering 1949 to 1991, the only books on travel in the first three decades were war reminiscences by invading People’s Liberation Army commanders, and books praising the heroism of the highway construction workers who followed. It was not until the 1980s that any publications in Chinese  started listing the  “scenic spots” of Tibet. The first map for tourists to Lhasa published in China was issued in 1980, over a decade after tourist maps to Jiuzhaigou, a scenic corner of Tibet accessible from Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, were popularised. The first books  in China showing enthusiasm for Tibet started in 1987 with Yearnings for the Paradise of the Snowland.[3] In 1990 came Tibet: Land of Mystery, in English, aimed at an international market, a coffee table book of photos, with a text translated from Chinese. From these gradual beginnings has come the explosion of Chinese representations of Tibet as a safe, comfortable yet romantic travel destination.

No longer the terrain of intrepid but desperately poor Han Chinese, Tibet became a consumable. The magazines running lengthy colour features on Tibet grew fatter and glossier, pricier and more alluring. The Hong Kong-based China Tourism English language monthly long led the way, and sold binders to preserve past issues, for readers unlikely to actually travel. It was full of the rhetoric of the picturesque sublime. Dechen prefecture (later officially  renamed Shangri-la) is “a dreamland to many travellers…. Thrilling panoramas, unpolluted fresh air and the colourful traditional lifestyles of the various ethnic minorities…. This charming highland has an untold capacity to refresh one’s spirit and soul….. I was intoxicated by the vivid images of the glorious landscape.”[4]

The first person singular is important to such stories, not only as proof of eye-witness, but because self-making is at the core of modernity. Tibet is a backdrop to a Chinese drama, the making of individual, consuming selves. No-one in China under-estimates what a dramatic change this is, encouraging the swelling of desire without triggering desire for democracy, or a yearning for a voice, which could overthrow the regime. But it is a Chinese drama staged in Tibet, in which Tibetans are incidental.

The most important consumable is the photo, of the Chinese tourist, against a Tibetan backdrop, Tibetan architecture, a rosy cheeked smiling Tibetan girl at one’s side. The photo is for consumption back home, proof that one is modern, adventurous, cosmopolitan, civilised and of high human quality. Chinese tourists make so much effort to take shots they do not look carefully at the objects of the lens, nor do they attempt to talk with Tibetans, who seldom have much Chinese. Cameras intrude into the most sacred of mind-purifying pilgrimage activities, such as the culmination of a pilgrimage by prostrating full-length across Tibet to finally attain the holiest of holies, the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, only to be snapped endlessly and intrusively. In the early years of mass tourism, would-be tourists were given earnest, detailed instructions on how to take the iconic photo of the iconic scenic spot from exactly the right angle. The idea was to enhance the individual self-making by the tourist, through taking the “representative and typical” view found on the postcards.[5] Today, no-one needs such instruction. Everyone has subconsciously absorbed so many media images of Tibet that pointing and clicking the iconic, editing out the modern, is automatic.

Woeser, the Tibetan essayist and public intellectual, has written feelingly of this uncaring intrusion into the inner life of Buddhist pilgrims. Tibetans viewed through the distancing mechanism of the camera close-up congregate most densely, and behave most differently to Chinese norms, around the Jokhang. If one wants to reinforce the social cohesion of being Han Chinese, by capturing Tibetan difference, there is no better place than the throng of worshippers around the Jokhang. Because the Jokhang magnetises Tibetans, Chinese tourists in turn are attracted to the site. Since manifesting oneself as an individual, desiring and desirable, is the subtext of tourism, there was a need for  a place for Han to flirt, date, hook up and seduce each other. Where better than the epicentre: the Jokhang?

It says much about the camera that sees all and the human eye behind it that sees nothing, that the Chinese “romance wall” came to be located right opposite the Jokhang cathedral. On witnessing this, Woeser wrote, in 2010: “I have encountered those ‘Tibet Drifters’ sitting at the main entrance of Jokhang Temple laughing, giggling and snuggling up to each other. Cigarettes dangle from their lips; they drink beer and sunbathe while watching Tibetans prostrating. They gaze and stare and while laughing and giggling, they also go and prostrate a few times as if it was just some kind of game, just some type of popular amusement.”

In 2011, Woeser wrote: “The so-called ‘Romance Wall’ originally served as a place for pilgrims to offer thousands of butter lamps in small cups and as a place for those prostrating to take a rest. But after it was transformed into the ‘Romance Wall’, it was often occupied by tourists looking for a slice of ‘romance’ and the pilgrims had no choice but to cramp together, standing back to back when prostrating. I have seen those tourists squeezed at the bottom of the wall many times; they nestle, smoke, drink beer, laugh noisily, feed each other or lift their enormous cameras, scrupulously taking photos of the prostrating pilgrims. Some place a sign in front of their chests, writing that they are looking for a mistress or are recruiting partners etc. Some are disguised as beggars with a paper box or hat placed in front of them they shout ‘please, please’ at the Tibetan pilgrims. Others suddenly throw themselves to the ground, imitating the prostrating of Tibetan pilgrims in a derisive way. A tourist who had visited the ‘Romance Wall’ many times wrote online: ‘We sit at the bottom of the wall, smoke and laugh at these people. We don’t understand their beliefs. We don’t know what they are after. Afterlife?’  Chinese media such as Xinhua News, Tibet News Online, Tibet Business News use exaggerated and embellished headlines such as ‘Romance Wall’ in the Barkor or Lhasa’s ‘Romance Wall’: places where it is easiest to have an encounter with beautiful women.’”

Media coverage made this holiest place sexy and cool, an exciting liminal space in which normal rules no longer apply, because it is in Tibet, and anything is possible. Tourists anywhere may behave badly, as if freed from the scrutiny and constraints of home, but Tibet is especially attractive as a place to lounge, sunbake, flaunt one’s charms and seek sex, because Tibet is both home and unhome, China’s Tibet™ yet exotic, a domestic destination yet as different as can be imagined. They use Chinese money and the only public language is Chinese, but it’s wild. Anything goes.

The habitually negative attitude of Han Chinese stationed in Tibet in the 20th century spared Tibetan women being the object of Han erotic fantasies. Han men have not chased after Tibetan women, as they do after Tai women in Xishuangbanna Jinghong. Generations of Han have been told the women of this district of Yunnan freely make themselves sexually available, which has generated sex tourism on a major scale, in contrast to Tibet, where sex workers’ clients are overwhelmingly of the same ethnicity as the workers, according to a detailed survey conducted by Australian Red Cross. Although Han men travel to Jinghong for exotic sex, they participate in a deception. Medical anthropologist Sandra Hyde writes: “Jinghong is a city of prostitution: it provides Han Chinese male tourists with a lucrative sex tourist destination. What the male tourists come to Jinghong to consume are Tai women. However, the majority of the prostitutes are not Tai but women from Sichuan and Guizhou dressed in Tai clothing to attract Han male customers.”[6] The customers accept this rather obvious deception, pretending to themselves that these are the exotically different women they crave. This is little different to the basic transaction between sex worker and client, in which the worker puts on a show of enjoying the sex, and the client chooses to believe the display. The staging of authenticity is not new.

China objectifies ethnic minority women, and minority ethnicities generally. “Thus, peoples formerly marginalized as “backward” are inserted into the post-Mao national landscape -but at the price of finding their cultural resources reduced to readily manufacturable “objects” and their cultural identities to possessors of these objects, which may be sold and consumed globally.”[7]

China has been on a sharp learning curve. Tibet has taken a rapid transit across the sky of Chinese imaginaries. Tibet in the 1950s to 1970s was the setting for stories China told itself of the heroism of conquest, subduing both land and people. Now it is an object of desire, readily available for mass consumption. At all times, the model to be followed was Western modernity, with its concepts of desire, choice, leisure, holidays and consumption. All of these had to be learned; and once learned then naturalised so they could fade into the background as givens no longer acknowledged as innovative breaks with the past.

Lhasa has been reconceptualised as a suite of scenic spots around which is clustered a modern city with the comforts essential to modernity and mass tourism, especially hotels, buses, heating and the availability everywhere of extra oxygen for those fearful of altitude and thin air. The iconic buildings which make Lhasa a holy city are stranded islands, sites for staging authenticity. The empty Potala palace, originally named for a blissful pure land Tibetans aspire to be reborn into, is as much an authentic replica as the massive tourist theme park under construction south of Lhasa, where there are to be daily re-enactments of China, embodied by Princess Wen Cheng of the seventh century, civilising the Tibetans.

Today we have two Potalas, across the Kyichu river, facing each other, since the brand new Potala faces north, with massive mountains behind it. Geomantically, from a Tibetan perspective, this is all wrong. But to China, and the millions of mass tourists flowing through to marvel at the elaborate staging of Princess Wencheng falling in love with Emperor Songtsen Gampo, in 180 performances a year, who is to say which of the two Potalas is real and which is fake? The new Potala is above all convenient, having been built for the tourist traffic. It is now  the arena for a sound and light show of spectacular proportions, with a cast of 600, with its’ backdrop not a Potala painted on cloth (as in the Beijing production) but a “realistic representation” or “authentic replica” (zhenshi zaixian) not only as good as the original but accessible and useful, even necessary.

Choice and consumption had been the privileges of a small aristocratic elite in China. Not only did the masses have very few choices, the idea of choice was novel. As modernity arrived, the state educated citizens, introducing new concepts, such as the holiday. In the 1920s, a novel idea was the summer holiday, xiaoxia, an opportunity to escape oppressive heat and humidity by holidaying in a mountain resort. “The editor of China Traveller explained that Western men and women treated summer vacation as an important event and started planning for it in mid-spring.”[8] Domestic tourism required infrastructure, not only roads and hotels, but also a banking system capable of enabling tourists to access their money wherever they chose to consume. The China Travel Service, which, in the revolutionary decades handled all arrangements for international visitors to China, had its origins, in the 1920s, in an initiative of the boss of the Shanghai Commercial and Savings Bank.

Hawaii is the explicit model Hainan follows to entice Han Chinese, en masse, to learn leisure consumption on subtropical beaches. What is the model for Tibet? It is not necessary to look far. Just as Chinese concepts of consumption imitate familiar western concepts, Tibet too is being positioned as a consumable modelled on western enthusiasms for Tibet. Today’s China imitates most things foreign, and the success of domestic Han Chinese tourism in Tibet very much imitates the western fascination with Tibet. If it were not for the Shangri-la imaginary embedded in global fantasies, it is hard to see how Tibet could have become a mass destination within China. It is the occidental fixation on Tibet as ultimate Other that led Chinese to question their utter incuriosity about Tibet, their monochrome version of Tibet as backward, smelly, cold, poor: everything China is leaving behind, and glad to be done with.

There is a traceable product cycle of domestic destinations within China, that starts with the “discovery” of a stunningly beautiful and exotic but remote area by backpackers. Once this is written up in a Lonely Planet guidebook, more middle class people from overseas, happy to pay for comfort, then also start to arrive. The cycle seems to be backpacker→ middle class westerners→ luxury resort westerners→ mass Han domestic tourists→ luxury Han Chinese resort tourists. That is the conclusion of Chinese anthropologist Yujie Zhu, after doing fieldwork in Lijiang, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan, a centre of Naxi culture, closely akin to the preBuddhist Bon civilisation of Tibet.[9]

Anthropologist Judith Farquhar says:[10] “Not only do travellers make paths but paths make travellers, especially in China where there is no tradition of an essential self that struggles to express itself.” Another anthropologist Lisa Rofel, reporting on her interviews with young urban Chinese women, says: “For the young women I met, excitement about the possibilities of a cosmopolitan future includes a search for the freedom to move through space and time that their parents, they imagine, did not have. One of the key ways to embody the global self is to travel across space –not, as they frame it, for the purposes of desperately seeking work or trying to move up in social status but for the purposes of pleasure. Domestic travel for pleasure, in contrast to travel for political goals, is supposed to indicate the truly free self, reflected not in the travel location but in the sensibility embodied in the act of travelling. These women regaled me with stories about travels to the south or southwest of China.”[11]

The destination matters less than the process of travelling for pleasure which, in itself, makes one modern. But the destination can attract tourists if it offers a discourse of modernity versus primitivity, light versus dark, that confirms the traveller as a truly free and modern self. This is the discourse China has created in China’s Tibet™, in Lhasa. Individual agendas of becoming a modern individual, mesh with the state agenda of being the liberators of Tibet from feudal slavery, superstition and darkness. There is a ready audience for the official message because it dovetails with individual needs. The Chinese lesson taught by the party-state at its key scenic spots is that the traveller is a modern, essential self, and China is a modern, essentialised, unitary nation-state that has liberated Tibet from darkness.

Tourism is consumption, in a country where economic growth is driven much more by state investment in capital expenditure than by consumption. The party-state has talked of the importance of stimulating consumption, to stimulate economic growth, since the turn of this century, but the shift has barely begun, and state-financed infrastructure construction remains the driver of the economy.

But learning to consume Tibet is about more than stimulating the economy, and providing employment opportunities for Chinese speakers in Tibet. Tourism is not only a way of modernising the economy, but of modernising the self, creating a desiring, discerning, choosing, consuming self who experiences first hand the grand narrative told by the party-state, and becomes an advanced, civilised, high quality individual by having internalised the message through going in person to the authentic replica, participating in staged authenticity.





[1] The entire movie downloadable at: The climactic final ten minutes are set in Lhasa.

[2] Catalogue of Chinese Publications in Tibetan Studies 1949-1991, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1994

[3] Yearnings for the Paradise of the Snowland,: a Sichuan-Tibet Highway Travelogue, Tibetan People’s Publishing House, 1987

[4] The Amazing Deqen Highland, China Tourism #245, December 2000

[5] Pal Nyiri, Scenic Spots: Chinese tourism, the state, and cultural authority, University of Washington Press, 2006, 64-66

[6] Sandra Hyde, Sex Tourism Practices on the Periphery, in  China Urban, edited by Nancy N. Chen, Duke University Press, 2001, 144

[7] Erik Mueggler, Dancing Fools: Politics of Culture and Place in a “Traditional Nationality Festival”

Modern China, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 3-38

[8] Madeleine Yue Dong, Shanghai’s China Traveler, in: Everyday Modernity in China, University of Washington Press, 2006, 206

[9] Yujie Zhu, Performing heritage: rethinking authenticity in tourism, Annals of Tourism Research, 39 #3, 2012, 1495-1513

Yujie Zhu, When the global meets the local in tourism –Cultural performance in Lijiang as case studies, Journal of China Tourism Research, 8, 2012, 302-319

Yujie Zhu, Authenticity and heritage conservation in China: Translation, interpretation and practices

[10] Judith Farquhar, Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-socialist China, Duke University Press, 2002, 196

[11] Lisa Rofel, Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality and Public Culture, Duke University Press, 2007, 128-9

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