LHASA, China -- Though somewhat dwarfed by the enormous public square and four-lane expressway running beside it, the glorious Potala Palace, former abode of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama -- now a museum drawing 5,000 tourists per day -- still exudes an aura of mystique and exoticism. To foreign tourists, part of the charm is also the difficulty of getting to Tibet in the first place. Just like many others, I struggled for years to negotiate high tour costs, excessive red tape and ever-changing travel restrictions to enter this once-remote country.
But from early this year, travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China has become less daunting: Visitor permits, required for all foreigners, are now easier to obtain, and the fabled "roof of the world" seems more open to outsiders than it has ever been -- perhaps too much so. In 2018, an unprecedented 33.6 million tourists (mainly domestic Chinese visitors from the mainland and Hong Kong) visited the TAR, including 270,000 foreigners -- a sharp 31.5% increase from the previous year. And local tourism authorities are hoping to have welcomed 50 million tourists by the end of 2019.
In that context, it is hardly surprising that an evening stroll around the Barkhor, Lhasa's central thoroughfare, set around the ancient Jokhang Temple, offers a reality check for those who still think of this city as a timeless Shangri-La. Built in 652 by Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd Tibetan king, the temple is the city's most sacred building and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Around it, dozens of restaurants and souvenir shops, including localized Pizza Hut and McDonalds outlets furnished with Tibetan-looking interiors, sit alongside "authentic" Tibetan steakhouses that blend nomadic culture with hints of Far West-inspired Americana. Cheeseburgers and yak steaks are as readily available as espressos and ice cream scoops.
The adjacent streets are filled with domestic and foreign tourists who converge on Lhasa to tick off their travel bucket lists. For some, it may be a spiritual experience. But for the crowds of Chinese female tourists posing in colorful Tibetan costumes rented from enterprising shops, it seems more like attending a cosplay convention. At least, they provide some business to the local Tibetan photographers they hire to take their holiday portraits.
The circus continues outside Lhasa: On the smoothly paved highway that leads to the stunning Yamdrok Tso Lake, former nomads sit next to their Tibetan mastiffs and charge tourists for much-coveted selfies.
It may seem ironic, but 60 years after Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled through the Himalayas to India, and Tibet was annexed by the People's Republic of China, the region has finally embraced tourism to walk the line of China's roaring modernity. In stark contrast to its northern neighbor, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region -- where, after years of brutal suppression, re-education camps since 2014 have been presented as "thought-transformation" schools to quell the local Muslim minorities -- Tibet has become a place where modernity, globalization and traditions intersect more than anywhere else in China.
With little choice apart from accepting the present and moving forward, Tibetans have learned to turn six decades of control into their own force of self-transformation.
"I have seen big changes in the local economic development as well as job opportunities among the Tibetans," says Sonam Jamphel, general manager and owner of Explore Tibet, the leading Tibetan-owned tour operator based in Lhasa.
We are drinking tea on the terrace of Songtsam, a lavish boutique hotel overlooking Tsechok Ling, a new, government-funded development area on the outskirts of Lhasa. Between us and the ash-gray mountain that forms the backdrop to the Potala soar the concrete-and-iron skeletons of a series of high-end, traditional Tibetan-styled properties that will open their doors to more tourists by the end of 2020.
This new area will complement the international hotel chains, such as St. Regis, Shangri-La and Four Points by Sheraton, that have already opened franchises in Lhasa. In addition, a series of attractive boutique hotels have sprung up, including the highly rated House of Shambhala, Shambhala Palace, and Tashitagke hotels. These establishments offer international-standard facilities housed in beautifully refurbished local homes, furnished with a mix of traditional Buddhist iconography, Tibetan statues, rugs and hand-painted thangkas. It may be an idealized, timeless image of Tibet, but it chimes well with the exotic expectations of both international tourists and business travelers.
For Tibetans, adaptation is a necessary tool for cultural survival, explains Jamphel. There are 239 registered tour companies in Lhasa, and yet, less than 60% are Tibetan-owned. The rest are run by local branches of Chinese companies whose central offices sit in faraway eastern Chinese megacities like Chengdu, Shanghai and Beijing. Jamphel's Explore Tibet tries to support local livelihoods by employing only Tibetans. Most come from rural backgrounds where, besides farming, there are no better career choices.
"I also believe that international travelers who pay for their travel permits and compulsory guided tours prefer real local experiences with Tibetans who really know the area and its culture," he explains. "It's the only way to inspire foreigners to really learn about our culture."
Despite the tourism influx, Tibetan traditional culture and staunch religious devotion have largely remained intact despite the steady rise of tourism and China's dominance. Even if they are promoting tourism to the TAR, Chinese authorities still maintain strict control on the movements of foreign visitors. Indeed, except for being allowed to walk freely in central Lhasa, each and every non-Chinese visitor still requires a compulsory guide and driver with a vehicle licensed for tourism purposes to visit Lhasa's monasteries and anywhere else in the TAR. Inside these cars, CCTV cameras hang right below the rearview mirrors, reminding guests that, after all, everything they do and say is observed.
In the face of adversity and enduring restrictions, Tibetans have remained largely silent but also united and spirited. Every day, old Tibetan women wrapped in traditional costumes walk clockwise around the Barkhor. Dodging the tourists posing for yet another dramatic selfie, they stubbornly hold their prayer wheels with one hand as they lift the edge of their long traditional woolen skirts with the other. Most hum in prayer as they walk past rows of Tibetan pilgrims who, at each step, kneel and then prostrate themselves in their marches of devotion.
They come from all parts of Tibet to end their journeys at the Jokhang. By the time they reach the smoking joss sticks placed at the gates of Tibet's holiest temple, their protective hand and kneepads are blackened from rubbing against the ground. No matter how exhausted and dirty, the pilgrims seem unfazed by the tourist circus arrayed around them. It is as if, like Tibet itself, they have come to the understanding that the survival of their cultural identities is now inextricably linked to the existence of mass tourism in the holiest of their cities.