The equation is simple, visiting Tibet as a tourist does not in any meaningful way benefit the Tibetan people, it may well be a wonderfully exotic personal experience, one that draws the admiring attention of friends and family, but it does not service Tibet or its culture.
There was a time when those considering a trip to the region could ease any prangs of conscience, about entering a nation under oppressive occupation, by drawing comfort from the views of the Dalai Lama, who has advocated tourism to Tibet, on the basis that people could see for themselves the situation. That may well have had some arguable credence in the late 1980s and 1990s when there was less global awareness and understanding of the situation inside Tibet. Since that period however the nature and degree of cultural erosion and suppression waged upon Tibet has become common knowledge, the Internet, mobile technology, and the courageous efforts of Tibetans have enabled a fuller exposure of life inside ‘Prison-Tibet’. News of political protests, arrests, instances of torture, arrest and killings are reported almost immediately, freely accessible to anyone with access to a computer.
Today those making the journey to Tibet do so in full knowledge that they are visiting a culture facing annihilation, a people denied civil, political and religious freedoms and exposed to a harrowing range of human rights abuses, including the forcible sterilization of Tibetan women. Of course not all visiting Tibet are moved by issues of human rights and justice for Tibetans, the motivation is more based upon personal gratification, a chance to experience the mysterious and satisfy some sense of the curious. All understandable qualities of course, however it’s the human and political context that operates inside Tibet which raise serious questions as to the ethics of visiting a nation under the draconian grip of a totalitarian regime. Would those happy to photograph Tibetans in prostration in front of the Jokhang in Lhasa have been comfortable with a guided tour of Cape Town during the height of Apartheid in South Africa?
Yet a powerful form of myopia appears to descend upon those who choose to see Tibet, not as a region under oppressive siege, but as an ultimate ‘Shangri-la’ destination, seems the mountains and turquoise skies disable any sense of ethical responsibility. Apart from this worrying abdication of moral awareness, in pursuit of personal adventure and satisfaction, those who visit Tibet should be aware that in so doing they are supporting an increasingly dominant Chinese presence. While there may be limited and isolated financial gain for a few Tibetans, the overwhelming beneficiary are those Chinese businesses which proliferate in the Tibetan capital and other towns such as Shigatse. Nearly all related enterprises, transport, tour-services, hotels and restaurants are Chinese controlled or owned, the tourist dollar misses ordinary Tibetans almost entirely and finances those who exploit Tibetan culture for profit.
The tourist to Tibet also furnishes the communist Chinese regime with political support, by choosing to visit she or he is declaring that they are insufficiently concerned with human rights issues or the occupation of Tibet to deter them. Moreover, in agreeing and complying to the suffocating constraints imposed upon visitors they are in effect endorsing China’s control over Tibet. Yet by conforming to such controls they expose themselves to a stage-managed propaganda view of Tibet, one carefully engineered to plant the thought that all is well under Chinese occupation. Take the comments of Mark Niew, Australian freelance writer, whose tourist trip was eagerly exploited by China’s Ministry of Propaganda Xinhua
“I watched monks chanting and local people coming to pray. They wore traditional clothes, prayed and visited temples seemingly of their own free will. Although I do not understand their language, I was moved by the atmosphere,”