China reopens Tibet to foreign tourists

BEIJING, China (AP) — Tibet reopened to tourists Wednesday, three months after the Chinese government banned visits by foreigners in the wake of violent anti-government riots and protests.

The first group of foreign tourists, from Sweden, arrived at the airport near the capital, Lhasa, on Wednesday morning, said Tibetan Tourism Bureau spokesman Liao Lisheng.

“Tibet is open now to all travelers from home and abroad,” he said.

China threw a curtain around Tibet and areas in nearby provinces with sizable Tibetan populations after the March violence, citing the safety of foreign tourists and journalists.

But a notice on the bureau’s Web site said life in Lhasa had returned to normal, noting the June 21 torch relay “provided a more solid foundation for a stable society.”

The torch relay, which was criticized by overseas Tibetan activist groups and had been considered a potential flashpoint, passed without event under heavy security.

The tourist bureau’s notice said the struggle against “separatists” who want to split Tibet from China was over.

“Tibet’s society is stable and harmonious, its markets bustling, and its environment beautiful,” the notice said.

The March violence and the subsequent tourist ban have taken a major toll on Lhasa’s economy, which has grown increasingly reliant on tourism since the start of rail service nearly two years ago.

Tibet had 4 million visitors in 2007, up 60 percent from the previous year, the official Xinhua News Agency reported earlier this year. Tourism revenues hit $687 million, more than 14 percent of the economy.

Chinese domestic tour groups were allowed back into Tibet in late April, and over 160 groups have so far traveled there, the Tibetan Tourism Bureau said.

But the general manager of Tibet Shambhala Travel Agency in Beijing said people are still afraid to travel to Tibet.

“We predict that we won’t have any business until October,” said Ms. Chen, who did not give her first name as is common in China.

China says 22 people died in the anti-government protests in March. But overseas Tibet supporters say many times that number were killed in the riots and the resulting security crackdown across Tibetan regions of western China.

In the crackdown after the violence, Beijing held speedy trials and sentenced dozens involved in the riots to sentences ranging from years to life in prison.

In the wake of the protests, Buddhist monasteries seen as incubators for anti-government sentiment were surrounded by security forces and closed off to the outside as searches were conducted and monks forced to undergo intensified political indoctrination against the Dalai Lama.

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~ by richart123 on June 25, 2008.

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