News / Asia

China Pushes Tibet Tourism in Theme Park Project

Pilgrims and tourists visit Potala Palace in Lhasa in Tibet Autonomous Region, July 5, 2006. Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's traditional home, is more than 1,300 years old.
Pilgrims and tourists visit Potala Palace in Lhasa in Tibet Autonomous Region, July 5, 2006. Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's traditional home, is more than 1,300 years old.
Just outside Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, the Chinese government is building a $4.7 billion theme park that critics describe as a fairy tale universe that trivializes Tibetan culture and glosses over the nation’s troubles.

The construction gets into high gear as Tibetans continue to demonstrate and set themselves on fire to protests Chinese policies in the nation Beijing invaded 63 years ago. The 50th such self-immolation took place this week. 

The Chinese Embassy in Washington refuses to comment on the theme park project, or the self-immolations. But Beijing’s official news agency, Xinhua, quoted the deputy mayor of Lhasa, Ma Xingming, as saying the project “is designed to improve Tibet’s tourism credentials and be a landmark of the cultural industry.”

Xinhua said the park, scheduled for completion in three to five years, will be centered on the theme of a Chinese princess who marries a Tibetan king. It said the park will include displays of Tibetan handicrafts, medicine and folklore.

Map of Tibetan Self-Immolations, Updated August 27, 2012Map of Tibetan Self-Immolations, Updated August 27, 2012
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Map of Tibetan Self-Immolations, Updated August 27, 2012
Map of Tibetan Self-Immolations, Updated August 27, 2012
​Tenzin Dorjee, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet in New York, is not impressed, noting that the project comes as Tibetan activists continue to protest Chinese dominance of their homeland.

“They are spending these billions of dollars in building a theme park in Tibet at a time when Tibetans are setting themselves on fire for freedom,” Tenzin said. “And this is China’s way of not addressing the problem, not addressing any grievances.”

Tenzin also accused Beijing of trying to distort Tibetan history by highlighting its own version of the nation’s past.

Stephanie Brigden, director of the London-based Free Tibet campaign, is another critic of the Chinese project.

“When you look at the proposed scale of the theme park, it’s vast and it’s … a strategy of ‘Disneyfication’ of Tibet,” Brigden said. “It’s not one of sharing and celebrating Tibetan culture.”

In this photo taken October 1, 2011, Chinese paramilitary police march during a flag raising ceremony near Potala Palace in Lhasa in northwestern China's Tibet province.In this photo taken October 1, 2011, Chinese paramilitary police march during a flag raising ceremony near Potala Palace in Lhasa in northwestern China's Tibet province.
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In this photo taken October 1, 2011, Chinese paramilitary police march during a flag raising ceremony near Potala Palace in Lhasa in northwestern China's Tibet province.
In this photo taken October 1, 2011, Chinese paramilitary police march during a flag raising ceremony near Potala Palace in Lhasa in northwestern China's Tibet province.
She said the park’s theme, intended to showcase harmony between China and Tibet, is insulting when so many Tibetans “have felt that their only recourse is to set themselves on fire, underlying that it’s far from a harmonious situation.”

But at least one Chinese commentator said it is about time for Tibet and its culture to catch up with the times.

“Over the past decades, breaking economic isolation and stagnancy has served as a basic prerequisite for cultural growth,” said Chen Chenchen, opinion editor of China’s Global Times newspaper, a part of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily group. “It’s increasingly impossible that a bulwark can be erected to ‘protect’ the Tibetan culture from external impact.”

"Younger generations of Tibetans are already making changes in their traditions,” Chenchen said, adding that ordinary Tibetans do not want to live in a backwater museum to be exhibited to foreign visitors...”

Brigden said Beijing apparently believes the theme park project will create enough jobs that it “will reduce Tibetan demands for freedom.” But she said previous Chinese projects “have not brought any economic benefit to ordinary Tibetans, whether that be in terms of employment opportunities or … money filtering down to ordinary people.”

Tom Grunfeld, professor of Central and East Asian Studies at the State University of New York, acknowledged that the project probably would create jobs for Tibetans, but that it was still self-serving.

“Most of the Tibetan economy is funded by the … central government of China,” he said, “So anything that can boost the economy is going to help the central government.”

The goal, Grunfeld added, is to boost tourism - the largest part of Tibet’s economy.

A Tibetan Buddhist monk stands between tourists and a giant thangka, a religious silk embroidery or painting unique to Tibet, during the Shoton Festival at Drepung Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, August 29, 2011.A Tibetan Buddhist monk stands between tourists and a giant thangka, a religious silk embroidery or painting unique to Tibet, during the Shoton Festival at Drepung Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, August 29, 2011.
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A Tibetan Buddhist monk stands between tourists and a giant thangka, a religious silk embroidery or painting unique to Tibet, during the Shoton Festival at Drepung Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, August 29, 2011.
A Tibetan Buddhist monk stands between tourists and a giant thangka, a religious silk embroidery or painting unique to Tibet, during the Shoton Festival at Drepung Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, August 29, 2011.
Chinese figures put the number of tourists visiting Tibet in 2011 at 8.5 million, and estimate that the first six months of this year brought in revenues of $381 million. And the Tibetan administration hopes to raise that figure to 15 million visitors annually by 2015, according to Xinhua.

But Grunfeld warned that a massive influx of tourists to a city like Lhasa is a double-edged sword that could produce ethnic hostility as well as make money.

“You’re flooding your 500,000 to 600,000 population – half that population is not permanent; half that population is probably Han [Chinese] who leave for several months a year during the coldest months when there’s no tourism,” he said. “So you’re flooding this with six to eight million people. It’s a tremendous strain on this city."

“And, it increases ethnic tension. The ethnic tension in a city like Lhasa is enormous,” he concluded, adding that so far Tibetans are afraid to speak out against the theme park project for fear of reprisal.  

“They don’t feel secure enough to really speak their minds because of the polarization,” Grunfeld said, “so the chance of real Tibetan input into this theme park is zero.”

Exiles, like Tenzin in New York, do feel free to speak out. He is calling for worldwide campaign to block the project.

“This is going to destroy our history,” he said, “and this will not benefit the Tibetan people in the long-run.”

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by: singjohn
September 08, 2012 6:37 AM
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You can view and sign the petition here:

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by: Jonathan Huang from: canada
September 03, 2012 11:02 PM
Native americans deserve to have their own country. They have all the rights to move out of reservations. If they can not take whole america back, at lest, they should be allowed to have few states back and build they own country from it. Even in Canada, the northwest territory, Nunavue, Yukon and North Quebec should combine together and form a native country. I live in Canada and I see the hate from those native people, and their eager to control their own life and future. It is the time to do it!


by: Anonamous from: USA
September 01, 2012 5:03 AM
Ian from USA:

Although China has a History spanning back thousands of years, The peoples Republic of China has been an established nation since it's winning of the revolution. They are now con questing as we did in much the same manner at their own correlated developmental pace.

The fact that we do not invade another country and claim it to be the United States is only correct in the sense that we do not claim it to be a US territory. Iraq and Afghanistan and probably many more nations that we wish to demonize in order to usurp their natural resources could and will testify to this.
I would also ask you to conciser your argument in the presence of a Samoan (Hawaiian). As we invaded, and claimed their country to be first a territory and then a State of the US against the Samoan's wishes. We have also done this with Puerto Rico, Guam, and until just a few decades ago, the Philippines.

What I am saying here is not that China is doing nothing wrong. But we as Americans should focus on our own problems before sticking our nose in every one else's, and bullying our way around when we want something.

There's not that much difference between US and Chinese law (save the fact that we elect our tyrants and China's are appointed), and it would do every US citizen well to sit back and ponder on why and how we came to be so similar to a regime that many of us believe to be unnecessary and sometimes evil.


by: Anonamous from: USA
September 01, 2012 3:39 AM
Ian from USA

Please refer your argument to the nearest Hawaiian. Our occupation of that nation commenced only about two centuries ago, China'a invasion of Tibet was only 150 years later. Furthermore, we may not invade countries and call them USA anymore. However we do invade (Iraq, Afghanistan) and Usurp other nations. Turning them into respective protectorates of our own quiet Empire.


by: jonathan huang from: canada
September 01, 2012 12:49 AM
peter from guangzhou, I understand your frustrate but trust me who has been living in Canada for 10 years, and visited many nations that the west world is not like what you think, there are full of liars, poverty and fake democratic. most of Oversea Chinese have confidence on CCP.
why dont you look at the occupy wall street event, you can see how US government suppressed this movement. US is going down, China is going up! dont be fooled by west media. even germany PM has to go to China begging for money. World economy depends on China.


by: peter from: guangzhou
August 31, 2012 10:54 PM
I think we need to know more,to understanding something from different view.In mainland,what a pity that there is only one voice.existed in anywhere,anytime is harmony,the media always say the situation is good,we made what a great progress evevyday,but how about the really fact?!!!


by: Jonathan Huang from: canada
August 31, 2012 2:27 PM
@ Ian from USA, so I dont see you feel any shame of US history. And I see US is still invading other nations, killing innocent people. Yes US might stole enough lands, but you are still stealing resources from other nations. Same sh* it different name. Why dont you allow native americans to have their own country? allow native americans to leave the conservations, allow them to live together and build their own culture and nation. Could you? dont tell me native americans dont hate west occupiers.


by: Hoang from: Canada
August 31, 2012 1:59 PM
To Jonathan Huang,
The sooner the world gets rids of this Communist China, the world will have world peace. China will be divided into separate states and give back land to Tibet, Ughirs, and Vietnam that China invaded.
Freedom for Tibet. Down with China.


by: Paul N. from: Canada
August 31, 2012 1:45 PM
The cost of the former parks restoration in Beijing was 200 million yuan, but officials stole 35%. 30 .. 40% money was lost by corruption in construction in China.Officials can steal 1.5 billion USD from the park project .Over 18,000 rich officials escaped from China.
I have been to China this years. I met some very poor Tibetans. A Tibetan said, he was a shop owner in centre of Lasha but Han traders with the help of the Government inserted pressure, forcing him to sell the shop very cheaply .Government has robbed properties .Han people occupied the best places for business.
Stop the ridiculous farce and give back the land !


by: Ian from: USA
August 31, 2012 11:06 AM
To anonamous from USA.
Yes I do agree with you that our own history of forging the new nation of United states of America (USA) indeed contained many sad events and atrocities, and all americans, includes you and I, know these facts (such as the mistreatment of native americans, the african american slavery, the discrimination of any new group of immigrant from the recent established one ( as if this is an initiation rite ) Yet we are a nation of peoples who left those old continents for a conviction that freedom & equality exist, and we do strive for idealistic goal.
As you can see, our current president is a mixed ethnic african & caucasian . i try to point out that our nation starting fresh about 400 years ago, and now composes of pretty much all the ethnics groups on earth & in modern time, ( like many other civilized nations ) we no longer take over another country and claim it is united states.
On the other hand China's effort to erase Tibet as an independent nation in modern era is unacceptable behaviour .

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