Responsible Tourism in Tibet

The protection of exotic Tibetan culture and customs is something each tourist needs to be fully aware of. Respect the cultural taboos, and share your experience in Tibet to your relatives and friends to dispel the misconceptions about Tibet.
- Leon Zhang, from our supplier Tibet Vista
Like a particularly determined dog grappling a particularly unwilling bone, China has been chomping at the bit to occupy Tibet since 1949 and by doing so has slowly but surely shrunk Tibet’s original landmass and diluted its traditional culture. Horror stories of torture towards Tibetans abound and there have been rumours of prohibition where press and human rights are concerned since China’s occupation began. But it is important to bear in mind the power of both propaganda and of sensationalism where Tibet’s struggle is concerned. While, in our opinion, there is no question that Tibet should be free, the solution is never that simple.
While over 100 countries globally have been freed from outside rule in the time that Tibet has been occupied, it seems less and less likely that China – a country driven by Communism and with a particularly tarnished track record where human rights are concerned – will ever allow the independence of Tibet – a country with quite the opposite character. What we can hope for is that while China’s quest for development continues, Tibetan culture and traditional practice can somehow be retained, and that we can enjoy and support that as respectful tourists for years to come.

People & culture

Chinese control: a lack of Tibetan identity?

Put very simply, China says Tibet has officially been part of the Chinese nation since the mid-13th century and so should continue to be ruled by Beijing. Ever since the Chinese Army marched into Tibetan territory in 1949 attempting to conquer it, there has been tension between the Chinese Communist authorities and the Buddhist population of Tibet. China has closed 99 percent of Tibet’s monasteries, jailed thousands of monks, banned all images and teachings of their spiritual leader – the Dalai Lama – and significant efforts have been made to supplant the Dalai Lama with a Communist-approved alternative. Relations are strained to say the least, so much so that in 2010, the Dalai Lama himself accused China of attempting to “deliberately annihilate Buddhism”.

Sadly, the religious consequences of China’s need to occupy and exert power over Tibet are just one slice of a very long-running and brutal pie. Throughout decades of Chinese occupation in Tibet, over one million Tibetans have died as a direct result of conflict. This conflict has divided Tibet geographically too; the land claimed by Tibet would be the world’s 10th largest nation, but parts of the original country have been renamed and incorporated into Chinese provinces, hence Tibet’s current identity: Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR.

It’s not just China that feels this way; former US president Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama and urged China to support human rights in Tibet – but insisted he did not recognise Tibet’s independence. The UK was previously the only country in the world not to recognise Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, but in 2008 the then foreign minister, David Miliband, reviewed this opinion, to Tibet’s disappointment. Former Prime Minister David Cameron subsequently reiterated that the UK government officially recognises China’s sovereignty over Tibet, despite meetings with the Dalai Lama. China strongly opposes any meetings between the Dalai Lama and foreign governments.

Unsurprising, then, that Tibet has been repeatedly named as one of the 12 most repressed countries in the world by independent watchdog Freedom House, scoring the lowest possible marks for freedom in both political rights and civil liberties. There are now more Han Chinese people in Tibet than ethnic Tibetans – who are a minority in their own country. Free education provided by the Chinese government has supplanted traditional monastery schooling, Mandarin is taught in nursery schools and unrest is growing; over 100 Tibetan monks have self immolated in protest since 2011.

Understandably, Tibetans see nothing but negative impact from the Chinese and have accused them of suppressing their culture, their freedom of expression and their right to worship whom they want to worship. The Communist authorities disagree, with Chinese leaders pointing out – through the example of major infrastructure projects such as the railway linking Lhasa to Qinghai province – that Tibet is much wealthier under Beijing's rule than it would otherwise have been and there is a significant growth of industry in the region.

The Chinese are a determined people and, in many ways, they should be commended for that. But what it seems they’ve failed to recognise since the 1950s is that traditional Tibetans are unconcerned with commerce and cash. They are a conservative and contemplative people who want the freedom to determine their own futures and who believe in human rights for all – they simply want to be free.

Read more about China’s occupation of Tibet and Tibet’s ongoing struggle via Free Tibet.

What you can do
It seems, particularly where the Chinese are concerned, that this isn’t a case of what you can do, but rather what you can’t. As Westerners, we simply cannot expect to have a completely accurate take on the mindset of the Chinese and the reasons for their actions. Which isn’t to say we have to agree, or even understand, but is to say that storming in with our opinions would likely cause more damage to an already vulnerable situation.

Knowledge is power here, so if you want to understand Tibet’s plight further and learn how you can help, your first port of call should be Free Tibet, an organisation with a whole host of ongoing campaigns aimed at spreading the word about Tibet and securing the rights of its people. Secondly, visit Tibet – it’s a beautiful and mysterious country with so much culture to share and any support it receives by way of tourism will only ever be a good thing.
Justin Francis, co-founder of Responsible Travel and keen campaigner, shares his thoughts on China’s occupation of Tibet:
“I think there has been a creeping acceptance – not least by the Dalai Lama who has said as much – that China is there to stay and Tibet will never again be independent. My thought would be not to accept that, but to retain the hope that one day it will gain independence. China is moving in its people (to settle in Tibet) and its culture, and Tibet is changing and becoming more like China. However, I have faith in the strength of the Tibetan culture, and in tourism as a way to attach importance to it.”

Wildlife & environment

Destruction of nature and natural resources results from ignorance, greed and the lack of respect for earth's living things
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama, 1993
The Tibetan Plateau is known as the “Third Pole” thanks to the extraordinary amount of freshwater captured in its high altitude glaciers – the greatest volume in the world outside of the North and South Poles. The Hindu Kush Himalayan Ice Sheet contains some 46,000 glaciers, and as the source of many of Asia’s greatest rivers, it supplies water to around 1.3 billion people – close to a sixth of the world’s population. Although seemingly barren and lifeless for much of the year, the plateau in fact plays a strategic role in regional ecosystems and water supplies, as well as mitigating climate change on a global scale. The landscape has been preserved over centuries largely due to the environmentally sensitive beliefs of Tibetan Buddhists, who believe in the interdependence of humans, animals and plants, as well as in taking only what they need from nature. The cold grasslands sequester huge amounts of organic carbon, a situation that could change all too rapidly if the glaciers recede, the permafrost melts and the lakes and wetlands flood in some regions, and dry up in others. And China’s damming of these mighty rivers, harnessing them for hydropower – as well as its plans to divert water to its own people – will have disastrous impacts not just on Tibet, but across much of Central, Southern and Southeast Asia, and potentially across the world. Ironically, China is pursuing this environmentally risky hydropower project to ensure “that non-fossil fuel accounts for 15 percent of the energy supply by 2020.”*

China has made no attempt to disguise its thirst for Tibet’s mineral and natural wealth. It refers to Tibet as Xizang, or its “western treasure house”, and has long exploited resources such as copper, silver, gold and timber as well as elements such as lithium and uranium.** Mining and industrial logging inevitably cause destruction on a vast scale, and China’s minimal environmental regulation means that the damaging effects are multiplied. Worse still, in Tibet’s case, its population – many of whom are desperately poor – do not stand to benefit in any way from the exploitation of its resources, as the money is funnelled back to Beijing. Across the plateau, nomads have been expelled from their ancestral lands to make way for mines, boreholes, dams and new roads. We do understand that some infrastructure is needed across Tibet, and that there are areas which will benefit hugely from investment and development of services. But this needs to be done in an environmentally responsible way, with the money generated by Tibet’s valuable resources channelled back into ensuring its environment, and its people, are protected and – if possible – better off.

*Source: The Atlantic
** Source: Free Tibet


Cultural sensitivity is the big issue when it comes to travelling responsibly in Tibet. Most people you will encounter here are deeply religious, so please dress conservatively with shoulders and knees covered, at least, and ask your tour leader for guidance on how to behave inside monasteries. Women may not touch monks, men may not touch nuns, and some monasteries may forbid women from entering. You’ll also need to remove hats and sunglasses, and check which direction to walk in while inside and around the temples; some are clockwise, others are anticlockwise depending on the religious branch.

Please resist the temptation to point and shoot in Tibet, as photogenic as this country and its people may be. You may not take photographs inside monasteries, and you may get in trouble with the Chinese authorities if you take photographs of things such as protests or military installations. On a personal level, always ask permission before taking a photograph of Tibetan people. Strike up a conversation through your guide, buy something first if they are selling produce or souvenirs, and then ask. If they decline, be polite. And if they agree – then you have more of a story to go along with your photograph. But please don’t pay for photos – it’s better not to have a photo at all.

Don’t storm in with your own thoughts on Tibet, China, the political situation or the Dalai Lama, but be prepared to listen to local views. Tibetans may reluctant to talk about certain issues in public – these are very sensitive and often inflammatory subjects, and speaking openly could land them in serious trouble. Your local guide is responsible for you while you are in the country, so please don’t do anything to put him or her in an awkward position.

Resist the temptation to hand out gifts and sweets, even to children. If you would like to make a donation, ask your holiday company or tour leader about the most suitable items to bring, and then hand them out to a local leader, head teacher or so on, rather than indiscriminately in the street. Where possible, buy these items in Tibet to support local traders. Never give directly to children as this promotes begging, and sweets are a particularly bad idea. However, it is traditional to offer money to monks and nuns, as culturally and historically they depend on donations.

Look out for your porters while trekking in Tibet. Ensure they have appropriate clothing and shoes, are well fed and have somewhere warm and dry to sleep. Ask your holiday company for their policy on porters, in terms of fair pay and conditions. And find out what the tipping etiquette is too; often groups will pool tips for local staff.
Ask your holiday company how they support Tibetan businesses – do they use locally run guesthouses and restaurants and Tibetan drivers, where possible (as opposed to Chinese establishments)? Will you be taken to local markets, craft workshops and so on to be able to support Tibetan artisans and the promotion of traditional skills and crafts?

Be respectful of this fragile environment, especially outside the cities. Take all litter back out with you, and pick up any you might encounter while trekking to dispose of once you return to the city. Take short showers, remove packaging from items before departure, and take hard to dispose of items, like spent batteries, back home with you.

Where possible, bring your own water bottle and refill from larger bottles as you go, to reduce the amount of plastic waste. Alternatively, invest in a LifeStraw, which safely filters water for you to drink.

If you are camping, spending time in remote areas or in homestays, try and buy eco toiletries to pack so as not to contaminate water sources.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Will De Freitas] [People & cultures: Dechen Tsewang] [Wildlife & environment: Tenace10] [Responsible tourism tips: Dirk Groeger]