Tibet Faces Threat of Mass Tourism

Article excerpt

Byline: Anita Chang

LHASA, China (AP) -- Three crimson-robed monks chant quietly as they file through the ancient palace, pausing every now and then to pray in the candle-lit rooms filled with Buddhist statues and religious murals.

At the Potala Palace, the mountain-top Tibetan landmark where the Dalai Lama lived until he fled to India in 1959 to escape Chinese control, they are in the minority.

A year-old rail line linking Tibet's capital Lhasa with the rest of China has brought a deluge of Chinese tourists.

"In the past, this was a very comfortable place to come for Buddhists. You could see a lot of lamas and Tibetans in this place and it made you feel like this was a place for your faith," monk Renzin Gyaltso said as he strolled down a stone path at the Potala Palace.

Tibet's Buddhist culture, often besieged in the past half-century of Chinese rule by religious restrictions and communist political movements, is facing a new threat: Mass tourism.

Pilgrimages to sacred sites are an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. Renzin Gyaltso, 29, has visited the sprawling Potala Palace 14 times since joining a monastery as a small boy.

"Now I feel sad when I come here because I cannot see any good people, I can't see any people wearing lama robes. You can't see anything special, they all look the same," he said of the tourists, dressed in fleece jackets and sneakers.

The Dalai Lama has warned that Tibet's religion and culture are imperiled as he travels the world meeting heads of state and drawing harsh rebukes from China.

"Every year, the Chinese population inside Tibet is increasing at an alarming rate. And if we are to judge by the example of the population of Lhasa, there is a real danger that the Tibetans will be reduced to an insignificant minority in their own homeland," he said when accepting the U.S. Congress' highest civilian honor in October.

Sky train

Few government plans have succeeded in bringing Chinese to Tibet like the "Sky Train," which has become a popular alternative to expensive flights or long, bone-crunching bus rides.

Beijing wanted to build a railway to Tibet for decades but was put off by engineering challenges. The project launched in 2001 and the train began running in July 2006, on a specially designed track to protect the delicate permafrost that lies under much of the last third of the rail line.

According to government statistics, 3.2 million tourists visited Tibet in the first nine month of this year, an increase of 67 percent over the same period in 2006. The figure - 2.9 million Chinese tourists and 326,000 from overseas - is 710,000 more than the total number of visitors for all of 2006.

"There's been a dramatic increase in tourism generally since the opening of the railway," said Kate Saunders of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet. "It's been particularly acute at the major sacred sites ... the sites that are most important to Tibetan heritage."

Tourists also pack the Jokhang Temple Monastery, the most sacred of Tibet's temples, and Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's former summer palace.

Inside the temple, mostly Chinese tourists crowd a large hall filled with rare religious statues, including a life-sized representation of Buddha Sakyamuni as a 12-year-old. At least three different tour guides are shepherding their groups through the room, lit by bare bulbs, as temple workers keep watch.

"As a Tibetan monk I feel especially happy to see that so many people are so interested in Tibetan culture, the splendid culture," said Ngawang Choedra, director of the temple's management committee. But "it is a contradiction," he said, "on one hand to protect the cultural relics and on the other hand to let (tourists) visit Jokhang Temple in an orderly fashion. …