The Tibet Dilemma

Anyone who’s traveled has been there: the infamous “tourist area,” where everything seems to have a false veneer just waiting to be peeled away; the atmosphere is watered down, the people are louder, and the locals are just passing through.

It may seem ironic to the true traveler that it is because of them (or, us) that these touristy spots even exist (although I suppose we could make a distinction between “travelers” and “tourists”) and that the touristification of sites and cities is ostensibly the result of foreign governments wanting to put on a pleasing face for visitors.

Herein lies the rub: how can one travel to a foreign place without in some way contributing to this process of watering down local culture?

If you have, will or want to travel to Tibet, this is a question you should be asking yourself.

China announced yesterday that it will invest nearly $13 billion in Tibet’s infrastructure – to be spent on the region’s first railway, the world’s highest airport, and other more pragmatic needs like clean drinking water, electricity and telephone lines (Reuters).

But I can’t imagine that China won’t be looking for a significant return on its investment in terms of tourism – a Shanghai-based company here has already put together travel packages to the region.

[Lhasa, Tibet, originally uploaded by moniqca.]

That’s not so bad though, right? Healthy economies need tourism, no doubt – but we should be worried about how a tourist boom will affect one of the world’s most sacred and reclusive cultures. Look to Beijing and you see the threat manifest: a Starbucks in the Forbidden City – and people are debating whether this is ok? (PS – An interesting article on that issue here)

And so we feel torn inside. We want access to destinations, and places to stay and eat, but with this access begins the erosion of pure culture. How sacred is a temple once it is featured on a postcard? When we buy trinkets, are we supporting the livelihood of locals, or reinforcing the idea that tourists only come for souvenirs?

Perhaps what is most important is that we are conscious of our choices and of our intentions. If traveling to Tibet (or anywhere) is percieved as a means to an end – a destination to check off, a postcard to send home, a way to become spiritual – then something is lost.

We should travel for its own sake, for the sake of having new experiences and being open to meeting real people.

[For a resource on Tibetan life and travel, check out Life on the Tibetan Plateau blog]

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