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Tibet greets first foreign tourists after March riot
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Tibet greeted its first foreign tourists, a Swedish couple, on Wednesday, marking the full opening of Tibet to all overseas and domestic tour groups after a stoppage of more than three months following the March 14 riot in the regional capital of Lhasa.

The couple, 77-year-old Kurt Persson and 62-year-old Eva Sandstrom, arrived in Lhasa late Wednesday afternoon by air from the northwestern Chinese city of Xi'an, the hometown of the famous terracotta warriors.

It was the first time for the couple to visit the autonomous region. They were very excited while being presented with hada, a long piece of silk used as a traditional greeting gift in Tibet, at the Xungbala Hotel near the Jokhang Temple.

"That's fantastic!" said the woman, while pointing to the Potala Palace through the window of the hotel room. "We've been looking forward to visiting Tibet for many years. Its monasteries and landscapes are fascinating."

Sandstrom was aware they were the first foreign tourists after the riot that killed 19, but they took it easy.

"We have no worries about the safety here. It's no problem. The only worry was to get the permission to come to Tibet. We heard that the Tibetan people are kind and friendly."

Persson added they had looked up many documents related to Tibet prior to the trip.

"I would like to share my feelings with you a few days later, when our trip is over," he told Xinhua.

The couple will visit Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Barkor Street, Norbu Lingka Palace and a museum on Thursday and Friday, said Wang Hongmei, sales manager of the Xigaze bureau of the China International Travel Service.

On the weekend, they will visit Xigaze City and Gyangze County in southern Tibet. They will leave for Beijing by train on Monday, Wang said.

The couple had visited Shanghai and Xi'an before they came to Tibet, Sandstrom said.

Wang said her travel agency was now stepping up efforts to promote Tibetan tourism overseas.

"We want to bring more foreign travelers here," she said.

The regional government stopped issuing tourist permits to overseas travelers and the tourism authorities suggested travel agencies postpone organizing tour groups in the wake of the riot. It cited safety concerns and the reconstruction of tourism facilities around scenic spots damaged in the unrest.

Independent domestic travelers have not been prohibited from entering the region.

Tibet was re-opened to domestic tour groups on April 23, followed by visitors from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan in May. As of June 20, the region had received more than 160 tour groups.

A second group of foreign tourists, four Singaporeans, will arrive on Sunday, according to the Tibet Autonomous Regional Bureau of Tourism.

"Tibet is ready for a peak season. There is no problem in our reception capacity," said Tanor, the bureau deputy director.

"The March 14 riot gravely affected the regional tourism," he said.

The riot, involving violent crimes against people and property, was organized, premeditated and masterminded by the Dalai Lama clique.

The riot led to the deaths of at least 18 civilians and one policeman. It also left 382 civilians and 241 police officers injured, businesses looted and residences, shops and vehicles torched.

Following three months, peace has gradually returned, with the resumption of schools, businesses and religious activities, as well as the re-opening of leading monasteries such as Jokhang, Ramoche, Sera and Drepung.

"The tourists experienced by themselves the stable situation, harmonious society and beautiful environment in Tibet," Tanor said Tuesday.

"The success of the Olympic torch relay held three days ago in Lhasa demonstrated that the foundation for the social stability has been further consolidated."

The remote southwestern region had experienced a tourism boom in the past few years, especially since the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway on July 1, 2006. It linked Tibet with the rest of China for the first time by rail.

Tibet received 4 million tourists from both home and abroad last year, up 60 percent from 2006. Tourism revenue reached 4.8 billion yuan (699million U.S. dollars), accounting for more than 14 percent of the region's gross domestic product.

In the first two months of this year, the tourism business grew robustly in the region, greeting 110,000 tourists, including 6,000 from overseas, up 60 percent from the same period a year earlier. The March, April and May figures were not immediately available.

Before the riot, the regional government had expected the number of visitors to increase by 25 percent year-on-year to hit 5 million in 2008, and tourism revenue to increase by 24 percent to reach 6 billion yuan (873 million U.S. dollars).

"We will still strive for the goal," Wang Songping, another Tibet Autonomous Regional Bureau of Tourism deputy director, told Xinhua.

"Usually, January to April is the low season for Tibet," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency June 26, 2008)

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