Have you ever wondered at the persistent coupling of Tibet with the possessive prefix China’s? China’s Tibet is obsessively used to claim possession, since that claim is so clearly contested.

China never talks of China’s Xinjiang, or China’s Sichuan. Let’s unpack that oithy two-word slogan, and look at what it signifies.

China’s home-grown orientalism, like the historic orientalism of Europe towards west Asia, ascribes fixed roles and identities to its exotic objects. The Tibetans are required to play their part in a Beijing based script. The scripted role for Tibetans is to be forever on the way to modernity, without ever reaching their goal of achieving a level of civilisation equivalent to the urban Chinese who come to Lhasa as tourists. This is an unresolved tension. If Tibetans remain backward, ungrateful and uncivilised, tourists will not feel welcome or even safe. If Tibetans adopt Chinese ways and language, thus improving their human quality, becoming more civilised and employable in Chinese enterprises, they lose their exotic appeal, and will compete with politically reliable Han Chinese immigrants for hospitality industry jobs. So Tibetans must forever be in between, striving but not yet succeeding in becoming more modern, in recognisably Chinese ways. This is the paradox: the Tibetans are not permitted to turn their backs on Chinese modernity, but they may not succeed either. They cannot fail but they cannot win. This internal contradiction inherent in China’s mass tourism industry and overall policy towards Tibet is at the core of the unique brand China has invented: China’s Tibet™. The agenda of this logo is that Tibet must be different, but not too different. It must be exotic, a mirror of otherness held to the visage of the visitor, yet also safe, familiar, domestic, with the reassurance that in China’s Tibet™ all Tibetans love China, and as a destination Tibet is not only safe but even comfortable.
In these ways central authorities achieve a “narrative uniformity that is enforced upon and over lead tourism sites [which] constitutes a form of cultural grammar by and through which the state defines travel itineraries and controls the meaning held over landscape, space, and place.” Cheng Yan received a PhD in recreation, sport and tourism from University of Illinois, pointing out that: “the pursuit of collective and monolithic national imagery has caused a representational violence –one that is committed by the nation-state ideology operated through the organisation of tourism language.”

China's consumerism Hulme book cover

This book, due out in July 2014, looks in depth at China’s tourism boom in Tibet.

How is it possible that Tibetan culture, history and identity can be turned inside out in this way? How can it be that an articulate and profound culture cannot speak for itself? How could it happen that Tibetans have only minor, walk-on roles in a massive Tibetan tourism industry in which Tibetan history, culture and scenic spots are the core attractions?
Elsewhere in China, other minority nationalities have succeeded in controlling the tourism industry that brings many visitors to their villages. They are not bit players but actively build, manage and operate their own tourist village, their own cultural displays. This has been documented by several anthropologists.

Yet there are several iconic scenic spots in the lands of minority nationalities that are now utterly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Han Chinese domestic tourists, and have become marginalised in their own land. Tourism notoriously “spoils” destinations, swamping the original, authentic and local with kitsch replicas, mechanical reproduction, endless hotels and bars, until it becomes hard to find what drew people to come. While this greatly worries the discerning international traveller, it is much less of a concern to Han Chinese, who have no problem accepting, and enjoying, the “authentic replica.” To westerners, the phrase seems paradoxical, even self-contradictory. Chinese tourists are more relaxed about spectacles staged for them, less troubled about whether they are witnessing something pure, original, authentic, unspoiled.

In the lowlands close to the Tibetan Plateau, Lijiang, Dali and Xishuangbanna are case studies in the marketisation of ethnic difference as a profitable commodity packaged by a tourism industry that dominates the lives of the ethnic minority who were the original attraction. These places first got on the radar of tourists as funky, offbeat, quaint and charming destinations known only to intrepid backpackers. Then they were officially designated as scenic spots, fitting them into China’s long tradition of iconic scenic spots one must visit if one is to be considered civilised. Tourism at these paces scaled up and up. Mass tourism flourished, and also elite tourism with its luxury villas, upmarket hotels and resorts, taking more land and resources. The minority nationalities still sing and dance, at times that suit tour organisers, only the singers, dancers, ethnic artefact sellers, even the sex workers, are increasingly Han Chinese in ethnic costume. This does not trouble China’s tourist masses, who enjoy the spectacle, accepting the authentic replica.

One of the case studies in this anthropological fieldwork is of three performances staged daily for tourists in Lijiang. The oldest, conceived at a time when all the tourists were international backpackers seeking unspoiled authenticity, is deliberately staged in a rundown hall with dim lighting of a ramshackle stage, in a dilapidated mansion down a winding alley. All this reeks of authenticity, the pure, unspoiled, actual original that has somehow survived intact.

The newest of the daily spectacular performances, geared for the mass Chinese domestic tourism market, features pyrotechnic lighting, an outdoor setting that makes dramatic use of a snow mountain as backdrop, a fast pace, a romantic story of tragically doomed love, inviting tourists to escape their ordinary stressful urban lives and participate in various forms of transgressions, and it enables their secret selves to be displayed while pursuing an unrestrained hedonic experience. The latest product, specifically aimed at the Chinese domestic market is a re-enactment of traditional Naxi minority nationality wedding ritual, cut down from the customary three days to a five minute performance, conducted by a Naxi wedding ritual specialist, in which Han couples don’t merely watch, but dress as Naxi, and are actually married. This is what today’s China calls the “authentic replica”, a term that is not, to Han Chinese, in any way paradoxical or contradictory. English speakers, by contrast, habitually go to the other extreme, making sharp distinctions between “the real” and “the fake.”

The tourism boom in Tibet follows this authentic replica pattern. The focus now is on Lhasa, with global brand hotel chains in a race to get a branded property on the map in Lhasa, to get market share as tourist numbers swell and China’s new rich readily pay for the Tibetan décor and personalised butler service that are features of the newest hotels. But Lhasa is not the first major tourist destination in Tibet, only the latest. The first places in Tibet to become popular tourist destinations were on the peripheries of the Tibetan Plateau, some in places so remote and obscure few Tibetans had heard of them. Jiuzhaigou (Dzitsa Degu in Tibetan) and nearby Huanglong, now world famous for their scenery, became major destinations because peripherality could be turned into proximity. The further they were from the centre of Tibet, the closer they were to lowland China, accessible to backpackers by local bus, then to mass tourism on improved highways, then to the rich by air, even by helicopter from Chengdu, Sichuan’s hot and humid capital city. Chengdu now had its hill station, much as the British Raj in India built hill stations to escape the summer on the plains below. The deep valleys and their Tibetan farming villages were no longer associated, in tourists’ minds, with the adjacent nomad pastures above. They became China’s newest iconic scenic spots, magical places of exquisite beauty, jewels in China’s crown, with the special status of UNESCO World Heritage listing. In both Tibetan and Chinese, Dzitsa Degu and Jiuzhaigou means the nine stockaded villages of the Tibetans, but this meaning is lost, the Tibetans forbidden to farm or to host visitors overnight. The remaining villagers depend solely on their menial roles in the mass tourism industry, holding a docile yak for a Han Chinese tourist to bestride for a photo op.
Other peripheral places, many of them close to China, also boomed as tourist destinations, including Labrang monastery in Gansu; and Kumbum monastery in Qinghai, (Ta’er in Chinese) not far from Xining, the capital, and now surrounded by polluting industries. Another remote area, in the far west of upper Tibet, is the holy mountain of Gang Rinpoche, known worldwide as Mt Kailash. What all these locations share is not only remoteness but also that they were “discovered” first by nonChinese visitors, by backpackers and, in the case of Kailash, by Indian pilgrims. It was only later that the backpacker guidebooks, and China’s enthusiastic culture fever for all things foreign, led to a Chinese fascination with such places. China belatedly “discovered” these jewels in its own back yard, and built them up as destinations attracting millions of tourists a year. UNESCO’s scientific advisors long ago expressed alarm that World Heritage listing was achieving the opposite of what inscription on this select list was intended to do. Instead of ensuring preservation, World Heritage became a brand to be monetised by a growing Chinese tourism industry, a magnet to visitors guaranteeing a quality scenic experience.

In this way, Tibet was colonised by tourism from the outside in. Lhasa, the heart of Tibet, joined this accelerating process only this century. Prior to the arrival of fast, cheap, heated and pressurised rail services in 2006, Lhasa was too far, too expensive, too difficult, too lacking in infrastructure and dangerously lacking in oxygen. That was the prevalent attitude in lowland China: no-one would choose to go to Tibet unless they had to.

As the tourism industry expanded its palette to include Lhasa, some of the expansion was led by the same entrepreneurs who had made their fortunes on Tibet’s peripheries. This is especially so of Deng Hong who made good use of his connections, and his father’s military reputation, to gain exclusive access to much of the land surrounding the Jiuzhaigou World Heritage area. There he built luxury villas, hotels and resorts, in partnership with the InterContinental hotel chain; then did the same in Chengdu, and now Lhasa. In 2002, he was indiscreet enough to boast to a Washington Post reporter of his Party connections, and that they were the secret of his success. Now, in 2013, as China’s new leaders pursue their pledge to crack down on corruption, he is one of the first to be investigated and interrogated.

Private entrepreneurs such as Deng Hong and Zhang Baoquan of the Mangrove Tree Resort chain, also planning to build in Lhasa, got into the lists of the richest in China by speculative real estate deals, and building luxury resorts on some of the land they dealt in. But the state was never far, or merely a regulator. In China’s Five-Year Plans, tourism has long been identified as a “pillar industry” or “backbone industry” that can ignite economic take-off in Tibet, holding up the entire economy. Earlier Five-Year Plans, such as the 9th, in 1996, named targets of visitor numbers far ahead, but the reality was that the infrastructure, hard and soft, was not there. It was the state that engineered the urban construction boom of the 1990s and since, building the power stations, hydro dams, highways, railways, oil pipelines, airports and urban facilities, museums and exhibition halls that got Lhasa and central Tibet ready for mass tourism, and ready for entrepreneurs to create profitable businesses. In the past two decades, billions of dollars have been spent by central authorities to create the necessary preconditions for as tourism boom.

The hard infrastructure is obvious. Less obvious is the shift in popular attitudes essential to attracting the tens of millions of lowland Chinese now travelling to Tibet’s iconic spots. This too was engineered by the state, again working closely with private entrepreneurs, especially documentary film makers and glossy magazine editors. Tibet got a makeover. Lhasa became a place of comfort, inviting women and families, not just desperately poor men out for a quick fortune. Taking their cue from centuries of western fascination with Tibet as a land of mystery, Chinese movies, docos and tourism magazines represented Tibet as a land of great beauty, and the people as simple, timeless folk, always dressed traditionally, always smiling. China’s new orientalism remade the image of Tibet, editing out anything modern, including the massive military and paramilitary presence in all Tibetan towns. Tibet became an intriguing, exotic other that was at the same time safely domestic, where Chinese is the common language, where Chinese money works, where extra oxygen is reassuringly ever at hand for altitude sickness, where all the comforts and luxuries of global resorts are now available. It is this combination of the exotic and the domestic, the thrilling and the safe, the scenic and the familiar, the photo op and the hotel room, that makes Tibet especially appealing.

As a result, ten times as many Chinese visit Tibet as visit the US. Although the US is the leading nonAsian destination for Chinese tourists, 1.5 million came in 2012, while Lhasa alone receives 12 million Han Chinese tourists a year, Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong a further four million, and many more at other iconic Tibetan scenic spots.

The footprint of these visitor numbers is great, since almost anything manufactured must be brought to Tibet, to meet the expectations of visitors, from soy sauce to computers, steel to fresh prawns and plastic palm trees. The historic population of the entire Tibetan Plateau was never more than six million. According to China’s 2000 Census, the resident population had swelled to 10 million, not counting the floating population of immigrant fortune seekers, or the military stationed in Tibet. Since then, the tourism boom has further overloaded the carrying capacity of the Tibetan Plateau, which historically sustained a low density population willing to maintain a mobile way of life so as to not exhaust the alpine ecosystems of Tibet.

The guiding hand of the state is directly responsible for the emergence of tourism as a pillar industry. Not only did the state finance and engineer the physical infrastructure and reshape the popular image of Tibet, the state owns all the iconic scenic spots and controls the message given to tourists. The state trains and licences the tour guides permitted to interpret Tibetan history and culture, who must pass exams, in Chinese, in accredited tourism academies, which teach a syllabus written by the state. While insisting tour guides attain a high level of proficiency in the official line, tour guiding pays very little, and guides must detour their clients to Chinese enterprises and persuade them to buy, and receive their commission. This all makes for minimal connection between Tibetans and tourists.

The iconic sites of Lhasa such as the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple are no longer big enough to handle the tourist rush, and so many of Lhasa’s old buildings have been knocked down. The solution is to build a brand new city across the Kyichu river from Lhasa, on the south bank, as a major industrial expansion area, featuring a $4.75 billion investment in staging a daily spectacular enactment of the marriage, 14 centuries ago, of a Tibetan king and a Chinese princess. Yet again, the money is coming from the state.
A separate theme park is proposed to make the “Tibet Code” fantasy Chinese adventure books and movie into a literalised stage production enacted daily for tourists. This will appropriate a slightly later slice of Tibetan history, the reign of the preBuddhist Bonpo king Langdarma, who attempted to suppress the early adoption of Buddhism by Songtsen Gampo, his predecessor. The threat to Buddhism enables the Han Chinese hero in Tibet in the 9th century, and his trusty Tibetan mastiff, to come to the aid of the Buddhists and their treasures.

Now that two of China’s richest and best-connected men, Deng Hong and Zhang Baoquan, are building their Lhasa resorts, with InterContinental already locked in as operator of one, and smaller Starwood St Regis, Shangrila and Taj hotels in Lhasa either open, under construction or announced, the race is on among the big brands to get market share, to get the best locations, to be seen to have a full range of properties across China, including Lhasa. The new rich of China, despite recent requests from China’s new leaders that they be less ostentatious, continue to consume Tibet, and expect luxury. Across China, the number of star-rated hotel rooms is due to double between 2010 and 2017, from 2.25 million rooms to 4.16 million rooms. In 2012 China had 18,200 hotels of international standard. By 2017 that will increase by 50% to 27,300 hotels.

Throughout these major state initiatives, there have been tempting opportunities for official land managers and private developers to make massive profits, often by using borrowed money loaned by state owned banks, to finance the buying and selling of land for private profit. Throughout China, local governments used readily available central funds intended as economic stimulus, to speculate in land and run up massive debts when deals went wrong. Few cities have grown as fast as Lhasa, which may by now have its share of nonperforming loans weighing on local government, and on the banks that were instructed by the state to lend to them. Those loans have, for the time being, been rolled over, but must eventually be repaid, or written off. Land has become a valuable commodity in Lhasa Municipality, which covers a very large area far beyond the city, in which urban land can be bought and sold. Even before a building goes up, and before an international brand name operates a functioning hotel, there are fortunes to be made. Both in China and worldwide, there is increasing anxiety at these unrepayable loans, and at the secrecy surrounding them. Nowhere is more secretive than Lhasa, where the hotel boom guarantees property speculators with insider connections can make fortunes. Increasingly, the danger of a real estate speculative bubble burst looms over the Chinese economy. The rush to build luxury brand hotels in Lhasa, well ahead of international demand and perhaps ahead of domestic demand, may contribute to what is recognised, in China, as “a China style subprime mortgage crisis.”

Urban construction, in the small historic heart of an increasingly sprawling city, necessitates destruction. Prime sites are few and the 1990s decision by Lhasa Municipality to conserve remaining manors of Tibetan families is now swept aside in the urban construction boom, and speculative property bubble. With big brand hotels scrambling for market share, and other sites in demand catering to the mass domestic tourism boom, there is now intense pressure to further demolish traditional Tibetan buildings, which are too small to accommodate contemporary commercial uses.

A shopping mall under construction in Lhasa, with excavated space for 1000 car parking spaces underneath, has prompted a shocked cry of protest from Tibetan blogger Woeser, who is seldom allowed to see Lhasa for herself, and this blogpst on the shopping mall promptly censored. After her blogpost was removed, she told South China Morning Post: “I therefore plead to Unesco and other international organisations, Tibetan scholars and experts, and all of you, please stop this horrible modernisation from committing unforgettable crimes to Lhasa’s old town environment, culture and architecture. Lhasa is being destroyed by excessive commercial development. Lhasa doesn’t exist for only tourists. There are real people who live here and it’s also a religious place. You can’t just turn it into a Sanlitun village.” Sanlitun is an upmarket shopping mall complex in Beijing favoured by wealthy Chinese and international shoppers.

The mall alarms her for several reasons. The above ground loss of streetscape, the underground pumping lowering the water table of a river city, the huge scale of shops with 150,000 sq m of floor space, the relocation of residents to the edge of the city, and the danger of land subsidence as the water table recedes. The provision of 1000 car parking spaces is a sign of who the shopping mall sees as its customers. China is now the biggest automobile market worldwide, and sales of SUVs –large cars looming high above ordinary sedans- are especially booming. SUV sales have been energetically promoted by glossy advertising in travel magazines featuring Tibet as a self-drive destination. Chrysler Jeep and Tata Range Rovers have been particularly keen to sponsor rallies traversing Tibet, which set up photo shoots enabling them to insert ads into upmarket magazines, appealing to wealthy masculine Chinese drivers to personally conquer Tibet. The self-drivers need shopping malls to restock before photogenically splashing through more Tibetan rivers.


Tourism in Tibet should be in Tibetan hands. This is what visitors, especially international visitors expect. If the tourism experience fails to be built around real encounter, across cultures, between Tibetans and visitors, tourists leave disappointed and Tibetans miss out on opportunities to enter the global economy by being themselves.

The principles and specific codes of practice for sustainable tourism are well-known, and have been codified in detail by many intergovernmental and other agencies, including the UN World Tourism Organisation, UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme and by the tourism industry’s Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Under the heading of Local Control, UNWTO and UNEP define the goal: “To engage and empower local communities in planning and decision making about the management and future development of tourism in their area, in consultation with other stakeholders. Giving people responsibility and control over their lives is a fundamental principle of sustainable development. Moreover, tourism projects that engage local communities directly in their planning and implementation are much more likely to be successful in delivering local benefits and to be sustained over time. Policy in this area is not, however, just about engagement through consultation processes; it is also about empowering communities to influence decisions about the developments and activities that will affect their future while enabling the needs of other legitimate interests to be taken into account.”

An alternative direction, enabling tourists and the Tibetans to learn from meaningful encounters, is possible. There is nothing inevitable about making Lhasa a mass destination of lurid theme parks, state owned and managed iconic sites of Tibetan identity, with Tibetans sidelined into minor roles. An ancient, sophisticated, highly literate culture is capable of managing its lands and tourism futures. Many treaties to which China is a signatory, as well as China’s own laws, guarantee the cultural rights of traditional knowledge holders, enabling them to speak for themselves, rather than being spoken for. In theory, the Tibetans, as a minority nationality, also have special rights. In practice, China no longer speaks of minority nationalities, only of ethnic groups to which individuals choose to belong, or not. In reality, despite the promise of tourism, Tibetan culture is now product, in the hands of Chinese entrepreneurs and central planners, its strengths ignored, its external manifestations trivialised and sensationalised, a commodity for mass tourist consumption. This is the process of creating China’s Tibet™.

Join the Conversation


  1. Tibet continues to draw me to the most special place in the world. My times in Tibet include an overnight visit to the base camp area of Mount Everest. My memory of my first sunrise on the mountain is forever etched in my mind and is a time that never diminishes. My hope and prayer is that Tibet will somehow remain the home of the people that have lived here for centuries. Let us continue to support their dreams and aspirations. We have this responsibility. Thank you.
    Don Riedel living in Hollywood, California now for eighty years.

  2. Enjoyed your introduction to the concept of China’s Tibet™!

    By the way, my review of Chan Koonchung’s new novel about a Tibetan chauffeur who doubles as lover-on-demand to his Han boss is up online:

    Champa The Driver: Tibetan Dreamer in an Alien Land

    Please check it out.

  3. Thank you for a most informative article. Old images of Tibet fade into something else… Such stories of the mall are very saddening. In the end it is excessive human overpopulation swamping such treasures. And a seemingly oblivious mindset within Chinese power structures.

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