China’s statisticians say 13 million Han Chinese tourists now come to Lhasa annually, plus many more through the scenic sites and sacred places of Tibet, totalling at least 20 million a year.

What do they come for? What do they expect? What does tourism achieve?

Apart from the economic and ecological impacts, mass tourism, ironically, is central to creating individual selves, especially in China, where the concept of a uniquely individuated, modern, consuming self, with cultivated tastes, preferences and desires, is now fast spreading beyond the elite. Tibet is now part of the great, state-sponsored  program of training the middle class Chinese masses in how to become a discriminating individual.

Tourism usually means individual hedonism, and a hedonic economy based on satiating individual desires, fantasies and expectations. The individual pursuit of happiness through mobility is inherent in modernity, as is the assumption by economists that the purpose of economic activity is hedonic consumption. Individuals individuate themselves, discovering their unique identity and chosen life style, experimenting with various selves by travel, sometimes to highly predictable places where fantasies of sophisticated consumption are acted out. Resorts and cruises magnetise customers with the promise that even ordinary folk can pretend to be aristocrats waited on by servants. Sometimes the travel is to unpredictable places where tourists have licence to behave in ways unacceptable at home, discovering new boundaries of the self by gorging on drugs, sex, food or other sensual pleasures. Modern tourism is about me, discovering me, being me. It is about freedom, mobility, a carefree break from the responsibilities of being a law abiding citizen. Tourism and the state are poles apart.

Not so in China. The revolutionary era under Mao had a puritan suspicion of tourism as bourgeois, unproductive and wasteful. Mobility was tightly restricted by the hukou system which designated everyone as resident of a specific rural or urban area, with limited permission to travel. When people did travel, it was en masse, in disciplined cohorts coming, for example, to be present at a mass rally in Tiananmen Square. The prerevolutionary tradition of travel was part of the Confucian tradition of self-cultivation, by which the literati could manifest their high quality and good taste by visiting iconic scenic spots, soaking in the famous view, perhaps even taking up the calligraphic brush to pen a few poetic lines inspired by nature or an old temple.

Postrevolutionary China has reverted to the Confucian model of tourism as self-improvement and cultivation of patriotic sentiment, combined with technologies of mass transit enabling the masses to become exemplary too. Everyone could become a model tourist, improving  their civilised human quality, contributing to the national level of spiritual civilisation by patriotically learning “to express the infinity of one’s feelings towards the rivers and mountains of the Fatherland”, to quote a 1988 tourism manual.[1] This is emotion-work, a category of labour required to harmonise the self with the patriotic agenda of the state. The self must learn to become an individuated self, yet in harmony the party-state.

Anthropologist Pal Nyiri describes the invention of modern tourism in China as somewhat like Sanskritisation in India, a learning to copy the ways of the upper class, “All of a sudden, tourism gained prominence as a lifestyle attribute of the higher-income, urban population and began spreading. The state’s role, both administrative and pedagogical, in engineering this change cannot be overestimated. While the crucial 1998 decision to promote tourism was justified in terms of economic development, it coincided with the appearance of the term ‘leisure culture’ (xiuxian wenhua) in the government’s ‘civilisation campaigns’ as an attribute of the ‘modern and civilised citizen/bourgeois (shimin).’ Tourism in China is understood by its managers as the consumption of bounded and controlled zones.”[2]

The manager of tourism is the state, at national and lower levels, since tourism is defined (and statistically monitored) as visitation to famous scenic spots, places symbolic of the Communist Party’s road to power, re-enactments of historic ceremonies and the quaint customs of ethnic groups. “As far as the state and the tourism business are concerned, the map of China consists of a network of scenic spots ranging from imperial palaces and revolutionary memorials to nature reserves and fenced villages. The desire to travel could once again be the desire to validate one’s knowledge of canonical representations. New catalogues and encyclopaedias of scenic spots expanded the list from traditional landscapes of literati travel (reconfigured as proof of a rich national culture) to landscapes symbolic of the Communist victory and the birth of New China.” [3]

´By the late 1980s, one could not visit or live in China without encountering an abundance of museum displays, television programs, dance extravaganzas, and theme parks displaying images of the charming and distinctive dances, clothing, dwellings, and customs of China’s 55 “minority nationalities.”‘[4]

China’s domestic tourism surge into Tibet began the year the rail line to Lhasa opened for traffic in 2006. That was the year domestic tourism took off all over China, especially for urban Chinese to visit the countryside, and ethnic minority regions. Not only was there a groundswell of demand, from newly rich urban dwellers, there was also a recognition, in rural areas, that tourism could be effective in poverty alleviation. At local, provincial and national levels, tourism was promoted as a way of enhancing consumption, wealth accumulation, off-farm incomes, and of becoming civilised and modern. The concept of civilised tourism (wenming luyou) was the centrepiece of a mass campaign instructing the newly rich city dwellers how to differentiate themselves behaviourally from the lower quality rural folk.[5] “Planners specifically invoked tourism as a viable means of promoting economic and social progress in rural areas.”[6] The official slogans of this campaign emphasised what is missing from hectic urban lives lived among strangers. They key word was nongjiale, which can be translated as “joyous peasant life, or “happy farmers’ home” or “peasant family happiness.” “The concentration on domestic tourism and tourists in 2006 effectively directed the focus of tourism onto discourses of progress through personal effort and continued central state contributions to the betterment of national unity and rural livelihoods.”[7]

Only a few years earlier, Tibet was a hardship posting for Han Chinese, inconceivable as a tourist destination. According to the statistics of the Tibet Tourism Bureau the number of  Chinese citizens coming to Tibet as tourists i9n 1985 was 241 people. By 1988 this had risen to 386, then as martial law was imposed, in official response to Tibetan unhappiness, the number in 1989 dropped to 247. However the number of Han Chinese on official business trips to Tibet, for Tibet-work forums, inspection tours and party conferences was put at 12,000 a year and likely to rise.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation 1990 master plan for the future development of tourism in Tibet –a document of hundreds of pages- scarcely mentions domestic Chinese tourism. That Tibet would become a desirable destination for domestic travellers was inconceivable. On the basis of available figures, the UN WTO forecast the future of tourism in Tibet lay with international arrivals.  Tibet in 1990 was a command economy. Government hostels were built for official visitors, sparing the expense of hotels, while keeping them under surveillance. Tourism throughout China in 1990 was still an official oligopoly run by just three nationwide, state-owned travel services, CITS, CTS and CYTS, so much so that the 1990 Yearbook of China Tourism Statistics numbers on international arrivals consists of three tables, enumerating the tourists received by each of these three official hosting agencies.

That Tibet could become a desirable object for consumption within China’s tourism market was then inconceivable. The UN WTO’s growth strategy forecast that by 2010 Chinese domestic tourist arrivals in Tibet might rise to 3400. The actual number was more than 2000 times that. That the UN’s expert consultants got it so utterly wrong is instructive. This is a failure not only of statistics and the way they are trending, but of imagination. That Tibet might be engineered to occupy a new position in the popular rich urban Han Chinese imaginary was, in 1990, to Hong Kong based consultants, unimaginable.

A major aspect of becoming a nation of consumers is turning China itself into a product for consumption. Learning to be a tourist in China has been a state-driven pedagogy in itself, with many new meanings to be taught. For a start, people had to learn to take holidays, and for long enough to reach distant places. The state was responsible for mandating sufficient holiday time to stimulate consumption, and for providing affordable high speed mass transport by rail, to reach distant destinations within the holiday time allotted by the state. But the responsibilities of the state do not end there. Many destinations are managed by the state, and the tourist experience in historic places is carefully staged, to ensure the right patriotic message is transmitted. This is especially true in Tibet.

While the centre tried to shape domestic tourism, the drive to build it came from below, from local initiatives to grow rich, and it was only later that the state caught up. Throughout China, with one exception, domestic tourism is in the hands of local communities and local leaders, who decide what to build, what to stage, where and how to represent themselves, maximise benefits, minimise downsides, and control the tourism experience.[8] That one exception is Tibet, where the state superimposes its compulsory narrative, owns the iconic scenic spots and directs the tourist experience.

The many millions now sufficiently wealthy to have both time and money for a “golden week” holiday need training, especially if they are to be encouraged to go to Tibet, a destination Chinese people have tended to regard with trepidation, because it seems unnaturally cold, the air thin, and very remote.

The tourism industry is developing fast, but still relies heavily on state infrastructure and state tutelage of citizens to get across the message that travel to Tibet is no longer a hazardous frontier plunge for unattached men, but is now a safely tamed destination for families. The eternal love theme of the Princess Wencheng theme park makes a brave Chinese young woman the central character in a romance that binds two peoples forever together, a romance that feminises Tibet and makes Lhasa a honeymoon destination, a fast growing category of China’s domestic tourism. More on that later.

Overcoming ingrained distaste for Tibet has been a major achievement, involving market forces and state exhortations to model exemplary behaviour. Now it is a manifestation of having a civilised attitude, and high human quality, if one takes the trouble to visit the key tourist sights of Tibet, all of them owned and operated by the state, ingesting the state discourse. The state has invested heavily in not only the hard infrastructure of a train capable of getting people from Beijing (or Shanghai)  to Lhasa in 48 hours, but also the soft infrastructure of staging spectacles on site at the key scenic spots. China has been understandably proud of the engineering achievement, building a single track south to Lhasa from the heavy industrial extraction enclave of Gormo in northern Tibet. But, in order to reach Lhasa as quickly as possible, there are almost no stops. In the almost 2000 km traverse of the Tibetan Plateau, there are only two brief stops.

Similarly, the soft infrastructure of iconic sights in Lhasa is also carefully staged, especially for the 10 million Chinese domestic visitors now arriving in Lhasa each year. This is an extraordinary accomplishment, firstly of logistics, but also of persuasion, instruction, branding, master narrative construction, social and mechanical engineering.

In the 1990s, and earlier, Han Chinese in Tibet were posted there, often against their own preferences, or came seeking their fortunes when peasant farming or village enterprises in their own provinces became uneconomic. Tibet was an unappealing destination, not only for cultural reasons of strangeness and difference, but for the most visceral of reasons: one might well die there of the extreme, unnatural cold; or of altitude sickness in the dangerously thin air. Deeply ingrained traditional Chinese beliefs attach great importance to maintaining essential life energy in balance by avoiding extremes of heat or cold. Intense and persistently cold places are viewed as unnatural and life-threatening. Those who do live in such places can only be imagined to lead brutal lives lacking choice. Who would not escape to more congenial climates if they could?

Tibet came under effective, actual Chinese governance from the 1950s onward. These inbuilt Chinese cultural settings made Tibet a highly masculine place for the pioneering Han, brave and bold, the ideologically-driven, the fortune hunter and even the revolutionary martyr. They ate bitterness, to instruct Tibetans in how to speak bitterness by denouncing landlords as class enemies to be liquidated.

In today’s China, this is an ancient memory, barely believable and seldom mentioned. The embedded imaginary of Tibet was turned around, in this century, by a major campaign to reposition Tibet in Chinese minds, especially in the imaginaries of the newly rich urban Chinese who had money and time for leisure. The Tibetan Plateau became an object of curiosity and even wonder, an exotic jewel at the remotest reaches of inland China, an antithesis of everything familiar. The mountains, verdant pastures, the profuse flowering of the alpine meadows in summer, became favourite topics for photographers, and for a proliferation of popular magazines that gave special emphasis to Tibet or were dedicated specifically to representing Tibet. In the 20th century, only a few Chinese went to Tibet by choice, notably artists, writers and film makers. One of the best known was the short story writer Ma Jian, whose 1987 Stick Out Your Tongue projected his alienation from communist ideology onto a Tibetan landscape which he populated with bizarre and surreal events that readers took as largely factual. Landscapes more familiar to Chinese readers would not have worked: Ma Jian’s blurring of realism and hallucination, the mundane and the fantastic, required a Tibetan location.[9]


l[1]  Luyou xiaobaike, Shandong Youyi Shushi 1988

[2] Pal Nyiri, Mobility and Cultural Authority in Contemporary China, University of Washington Press, 2010, 62

[3] Pal, 62-3

[4] 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

[5] Jenny Chio, Landscape of Travel: Tourism, Media and Identity in Southwest China, PhD dissertation UC Berkeley 2009, 54

[6] Chio 46

[7] Chio 47

[8] Tim Oakes, The village as theme park, in Oakes ed., Translocal China, Routledge 2006

Tim Oakes, Tourism and Modernity in China, Routledge 1998

Krishna Ghimire, The Economic Role of National Tourism in China, in Ghimire ed., The Native Tourist, Earthscan 2001

Xu Gang, Tourism and Local Development in China, Curzon, 1999

[9] An English translation was published in 2006 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

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