Tourism development has long been highlighted as a key to poverty alleviation and economic growth in the country.
The issue was a hot topic for discussion during the Seminar on International Cooperation in the Tibet Autonomous Region last week, as the region is poised to further boost its tourism.
According to the region's deputy tourism bureau director Zhang Wansheng, the tourism industry has developed rapidly in the region since the 1980s.
Last year, the region accommodated a record number of 686,000 travelers from both abroad and inland areas, earning a total of 750 million yuan (US$91 million) in tourism, which accounted for 6 per cent of the region's GDP.
The Kangsha Village in Burang County, Ngari Prefecture, is located right by Mount Kang Rinpoche, known in the West as Mount Kailash.
The 705 Tibetan villagers, who for generations lived by herding yaks and sheep, now make money by providing services to pilgrims and travelers as guides and carriers or by renting out their yaks and horses and selling local produce.
In 2000 alone, the villagers earned an average of 1,135 yuan (US$138.4) per person, more than double the amount of the local average per capita income from yak and sheep herding in the same year, which was 526 yuan (US$64).
The Kangsha villagers have served as one impetus for the region to embark on an even more ambitious tourism development program. The prospect of the program is to attract more than 1 million tourists every year and to increase tourism earnings by 20 per cent in the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-05).
The program projection is impressive, but it raises two main concerns.
Will the increase in the number of tourists affect the fragile ecological system on "the roof of the world?"
And will the "commoditization" of local cultural products diminish the authenticity of the ethnic Tibetan culture and thus hamper the preservation and creative development of this traditional ethnic culture?
The questions clearly touch upon two conflicts that may emerge as the program is unfolding and inviting international co-operation.
Conflict could arise between the desire to bring in more tourists and the drive to protect the local environment, as more cement hotels are built, more litter is committed and more vehicles roam the plateau and affect the area's air quality.
The surging tourism industry may also bring about conflict between the desire to supply markets with more, often cheap and machine-produced, arts and crafts souvenirs and the preserving the soul of Tibetan culture that distinguishes itself from any other place on earth.
Local tourism officials must grapple with these conflicts and find ways to deal with the problems.
One method is to assist local Tibetan residents and villagers in providing accommodations to tourists rather than building more hotels.
The region's tourism bureau hopes to develop eco-tourism that is popular in the West, but Kerstin Leitner, a representative of the United Nations Development Program in China, said eco-tourism may not be as attractive in Tibet since few people can endure hiking on land with an average elevation of 4,000 meters above the sea level.
While Leitner's advice should be noted, one of the more important things that the region's tourism bureau should do is to educate and train tourists and help them become aware of the region's fragile environment.
As highway conditions improve, the region should also work harder to enforce the use of clean fuels, not only for tourist buses, but also for heavy-duty trucks and other vehicles.
The preservation of the ethnic Tibetan culture is a more complex matter.
According to one seminar attendant, Joseph Lo, who presented the idea of creating cultural capital, to fight the "commodization of cultures" in the region's drive to develop tourism.
Lo, an artist, and his colleagues have worked on a UNDP-supported program to promote locally-produced handicrafts.
However, few tourists are willing to pay the high prices that Lo and his colleagues believe show appreciation for the creativity and authenticity of local Tibetan artisans.
Tourists prefer cheaper handicrafts sold at Barkhor Bazaar in Lhasa and elsewhere, even though most of the merchandise comes from workshops in Nepal and India.
There are great artisans in Tibet, and workshops should be established to employ local Tibetans to create local souvenirs to cater to travelers.
Zhang Wansheng, the region's tourism official, suggested that although the sale of souvenirs normally accounts for 40 per cent of the earnings from tourists in the world, the souvenir design and production industry is still backward not only in the region but also in other tourist destinations in the country.
But the situation in Tibet does not seem very bad, considering that tourists traveling from the Great Wall in Beijing to Zhouzhuang, a small country town at the lower reaches of the Yangtze River near Shanghai, have expressed dismay at finding that souvenir shops in both places sell almost the same jade ware, paper cuts, batik cloth, porcelain and Peking Opera masks.
At Barkhor in Lhasa or the daily souvenir fair in Xigaze, travellers can at least find many different kinds of necklaces and small bronze, copper, silver and gold items with distinctive Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian styles.
Nevertheless, more handicraft workshops need to be established in the region to ensure that the local Tibetans, not only the crafts people in Nepal and India, can also earn a fair share of tourism dollars by making their own souvenirs.
Developing tourism surely is an important way to boost the region's economy and improve the lives of local Tibetans.
With hard work and special care, conflicts between the mass influx of tourists and the unique but fragile local ecological system and between cultural preservation and the "commodidization" of cultural products can be solved.
(China Daily July 2, 2002)