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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Comments page of 3
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by: Anonamous from: USA
August 31, 2012 3:37 AM
To Ian from USA: I am a natural US Citizen, and as I see it there are no Native Americans here setting them selves on fire because (1) it is not their culture to do so, and (2) because the only ones left are the descendants of the subservient nations.

If you check your US History books, you will clearly see that the US committed genocide against Native American people, including but not limited to the Cherokee, Lakota, and the Iroquois. Andrew Jackson AKA "Indian Fighter" ordered the displacement of Indians (also known as the trail of tears.) against the the supreme courts ruling. And as a consequence thousand of Native Americans died of starvation, fatigue, and dysentery.

The situation in Tibet is wrong and brutally fascist. However, we should not dwarf our own crimes against humanity against the backdrop of current tragedies.


by: WT from: US
August 31, 2012 12:48 AM
People say you can turn lemon into lemonade. The editors here at VOA is turning wine into vinegar, for obvious reasons. Hack of a job. I'm impressed, not!


by: Jonathan huang from: Canada
August 30, 2012 11:37 PM
Totally support China! No reason, only because I am Chinese!
Tibet is part of China. You wanna free Tibet? Over my dead body!
CCP did great job to lift people from poverty. Just look at how poor and backward is democratic India. You think Tibet could be better than India without China's help?
Tibet's history is rude backward slavery, and Dalai lama was a dictator only slave his own people. Why keep that ugly history?


by: Paul N. from: Canada
August 30, 2012 11:13 PM
It is ridiculous farce !
China destroyed thousands of temples since 1950. Of the 6,259 monasteries in Tibet before the Chinese occupation, only eight remained in 1976.Chinese invaders arrested, tortured, executed a lot of Tibetans.Since 1959 , 1.5 million Tibetans have died as a direct result of Chinese incursion (population 2.7mil before ocupation).China made cultural genocide there. Many of temples were used as target practice by Chinese artillery. A thousand years' worth of priceless Buddhist literature, religious paintings and artifacts were either destroyed or have fetched millions of dollars on the international market in an effort by the Chinese to raise foreign currency and to wipe out Tibet's rich heritage.
To build the park is a great scam


by: Ian from: USA
August 30, 2012 2:45 PM
To Rick from bejing
You sounds exactly like a government chinese communist hacker. They always compare apples and orranges when trying to justify something bad that the chinese government perpetrates .
I have not seen a native american set himself or herself on fire such as the 50 or so tibetans have done recently to protest China occupation of Tibet .
Settlers from different countries in Europe came to the new world around 1607 to establish a new country (almost 400 years ago) and gain independent from England in 1776, since then we are a country composed of many states as well as native american nations with all races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds etc..
We are not one country invaded another country and not in modern time as the case of China is doing right now .
I hope you can grasp the difference, but I am affraid that I set my hope too high in this case.


by: Ian from: USA
August 30, 2012 2:05 PM
To (the chinese) Hypocrite from: US

you said:
"People like Tenzin are a bunch of hypocrite. While living a modern life in New York, ask others in Tibet to keep "history". Why don't you go to Tibet and live a backward life to keep "Tibetan history"? "

I am sure that Tenzin and many peoples like him had to leave Tibet and resided in other countries as the result of China invaded Tibet in 1950 .
May I suggest that you should leave the US and go back to China and tell your chinese comrades to get out of Tibet as well so the tibetans around the world could go back and have their own country to themselves again .


by: Anonymous
August 30, 2012 12:30 PM
All nations who wanted to keep history are under developed.


by: Rick from: Beijing
August 30, 2012 10:34 AM
What does American Indian think about Disneyfication’ of USA?


by: Priness of Snowoland from: Switzerland
August 30, 2012 10:31 AM
Disneyland & Las Vegas means advanced ?

CCP wants to entertain Tibetans for how long can they afford it ?

Provide better education in the countryside retarded CCP !


by: yak from: DC
August 30, 2012 9:56 AM
This project is not about boositng tourism. There is no lack of tourist attraction in Tibet. So many people want to go to Tibet to see Tibet, its people and culture. But the problem is Chinese governenment doesn't allow foreign tourists to visit Tibet for most of the time. The most projects in Tibet is aimed to sustain China's control over the county.

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