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.