Shangri-La no more

Tibet has always seemed a magical, mystical place to me. I saw the Dalai Lama speak in Sydney when I was about sixteen, I have seen films like Kundun and read books like Seven Years in Tibet. But I have never been to Tibet, or indeed anywhere in the Himalayas.

It seems that plenty of others have. Tibet has been hammered by high-impact tourism for several years now and in 2007 for the first time, the annual number of visitors has exceeded the total population of Tibet. Even in the best of times it would be hard for Tibetan culture to survive, let alone thrive under these circumstances. Sadly, Tibetans don’t live in the best of times.

Since 1950 when the Chinese seized control of Tibet, there has been a steady exodus of Tibetans and an equally inexorable influx of Han Chinese into this tiny Himalayan kingdom. The population of Tibet is only 2.8 million, while the population of China is close to one billion, so outnumbering the Tibetans is not a difficult task. The rule is oppressive, according to both Tibetans themselves and outside observers, and many Tibetans feel compelled to make the terrible, risky journey across the Himalayas to live in exile in Dharamsala in northern India.

Yet China has been promoting Tibet as a tourist destination. There are new air and rail links bringing in more tourists than ever before. Most of the tourist industry in Tibet is run by Chinese and the Tibetans see little benefit. The earthly paradise of Shangri-La is no longer a myth but a marketing ploy (a few years ago the Chinese authorities renamed an existing Tibetan city as Shangri-La and it’s now full of resorts and shopping malls).

As far as I can see, there’s no real way to visit Tibet as a tourist and be part of the solution, not the problem. It would make me far too sad and I don’t want to be complicit in the Chinese occupation. I would rather go to Nepal or Bhutan for the Himalayan experience, and Dharamsala for the Tibetan cultural experience. My friend Vanessa Walker has spent time in Dharamsala and wrote a rather wonderful book called Mantras and Misdemeanours, which has inspired me to make the trip one day.

If I ever do go to Tibet, I hope it will be in happier times, or to make a genuine difference to people’s lives, whether by reporting on the situation as a journalist, or with immediate, practical assistance.

Speaking of the Himalayas and making a difference to people’s lives, Antonia at Perceptive Travel has posted about the death of Sir Edmund Hillary, reminding us that he should be remembered as much for the work he did to help the people of Nepal as for the fact that he climbed Mount Everest.

Comments

  1. Great post and welcome integrity and understanding, Do check the following:

    DON’T BE A TOURIST TO PRISON TIBET http://tibettruth.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/the-obscenity-of-tibet-tourism/

    Thanks for the comment. It’s an interesting link – I recommend my readers check it out. – Caitlin.

  2. Heya, just wanted to respond to your comments on the Shapely Prose thread without derailing, especially since I felt like the other Caitlin (well “Caitlin” there, but I’m sure she’s the other Caitlin to you) kind of mischaracterized my response as laziness when obviously this is something I’ve thought a lot about.

    I think a lot of straight tourism to Tibet can be problematic for the reasons you’ve outlined, but I do think it’s possible to mitigate these factors. My own trip to Tibet was led by Tibetan guides, and we stayed exclusively in Tibetan run guesthouses. The trip was preceded by very frank discussion of the occupation and, as far as it was possible and safe, these are discussions we had with Tibetans as well.

    Furthermore, while Tibetan Buddhism can be studied outside of Tibet, I think it’s the responsibility of a scholar to provide themselves with as much education and experience as possible. Presently I study the Middle East, so I live and study in the Middle East, I think my experience would be shallower if I boycotted the region due to say, feminist or political concerns, which I have.

    I think that we are both concerned with the welfare of the Tibetan people, and I definitely respect your decision and your decision making process, but I’ve come to a different conclusion than you have, and I don’t think that’s because I’m uneducated or heartless.
    .-= Gnatalby┬┤s last blog ..Finally Letting You In =-.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. It was interesting to see traffic come from that thread and to see the Shapelings explore the site. This is the first comment though! I didn’t for a minute presume that you were uneducated or heartless since you hadn’t articulated your reasons or thought processes for going to Tibet and I’m generally inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt. However, I was uncomfortable with travel to Tibet being talked about in the light-hearted way that it was (by the thread generally, not just you) and wanted all the people who might be reading and thinking “yeah, I’d like to go to Tibet too” to be aware that there were ethical considerations. I also wanted to keep my response very much to the point because I didn’t want to cause another mass thread derailment.

    It’s not that I have an absolutist view that people shouldn’t go under any circumstances but I would hope they would inform themselves about the issues and decide how they were going to approach it, which you appear to have done but many mass tourists don’t. However, like the other Caitlin (but not The Other Caitlin, that’s me!), I have to admit I was a little puzzled by your comment that Googling would not be helpful to find out what I was talking about. I thought that if you typed in something about “should tourists go to Tibet” or “Tibet travel ethics” that some relevant hits would come up. The page that Snarkys found from Free Tibet was particularly good since it gave both pros and cons and a guide on how to do it.

    Where in the Middle East are you based? I’ve travelled a bit there. Notably, I went to Syria on an assignment once and stayed with an Iraqi family near the Sayyida Zainab Mosque in suburban Damascus. You might be interested in my Syria posts on this site or the article I wrote for The Guardian about Iraqis getting married in Syria. – Caitlin.

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