Tibet's fast-growing tourism industry has come to a screeching halt in the wake of violent protests that began with a March 14 riot in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and resulted in a major crackdown by Chinese security forces.
Within days of the protests, the Chinese government barred tourists from Tibet, which China calls an autonomous region, by no longer issuing the entry permits needed to travel there. The two main routes to Mount Everest, including one in Nepal, are being shut to climbers for much of the May climbing season, to protect China's plans to carry the Olympic torch to its summit.
In response to the riots, the State Department issued a travel alert on March 21 advising American citizens to defer trips to Tibet. Tibet tourism officials have said that the region would be reopened to tourists on May 1.
The travel ban came as tourism in Tibet had begun to flourish. Visits to Tibet surged in recent years as access to the region, high in the Himalayas, got easier, interest in Tibetan Buddhism grew, and rising Chinese incomes spurred domestic travel. In 2006, China opened the Qinghai-Tibet railway - the so-called train to the Roof of the World - linking Beijing to Lhasa. And roads into Tibet, while still rugged, have been paved. Tibetan-themed boutique hotels have even opened.
Before the unrest, the regional government was expecting 5 million visitors this year, up 25 percent from a year earlier, according to the website of the China Tibet Information Center, en.tibet.cn. Tourism revenue was predicted to reach 6 billion yuan, more than $850 million.
But as a result of the tourist ban, major tour operators, including Travcoa, the Globus brands, and Collette Vacations, have either postponed, altered, or canceled trips to Tibet, just as the trekking season is getting underway.
Mountain Travel Sobek of Emeryville, Calif., which has been offering tours of Tibet since 1980, has canceled its treks there through June. Some trips that go beyond Tibet will continue; its Himalayan Passages journey this month, for example, will bypass Tibet and devote more time to Nepal and Bhutan. Collette Vacations of Pawtucket, R.I., which offered trips to Tibet for the first time this year, has canceled the Tibet portion of an April China trip. Eight other visits to Tibet are planned this year, with about 100 of the 360 anticipated bookings filled, but whether the trips will take place remains uncertain.
"We may need to cancel future trips to Tibet if the situation does not improve," John Galvin, Collette's chief financial officer, wrote in an e-mail.
Still, tour operators say that the reports of unrest haven't scared off travelers and may have actually increased interest in Tibet. That wasn't the case in Myanmar, formerly Burma, after the military government there brutally put down protests led by monks in September.
"Travelers were very frightened about heading to Burma while the protests and crackdowns were occurring," said Leslie Overton, general manager at Absolute Travel in New York, which sends 30 to 40 clients to Tibet each year.
But she added: "People who were scheduled to go to Tibet still very much want to go and do not seem concerned about the situation. Obviously, we have to redirect them elsewhere because nobody can get entry permits for Tibet, but I do think it's interesting that the current events seem to have actually stimulated interest in the destination rather than discouraged it."
Tour operators who have canceled trips to Tibet are generally offering customers the option to visit another destination, like Nepal, get a full refund, or postpone their trips. Indeed, many companies are holding out hope that Tibet will reopen to travelers soon, since the high season runs to October.
San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions, for example, has not canceled its summer or fall excursions. Travcoa, a luxury tour operator in Newport Beach, Calif., which introduced three Tibet tours this year, canceled its April trip but not its August one - though it is advising customers for the August trip to hold off on purchasing nonrefundable airline tickets.
Globus, which has 18 Tibet trips planned this year (up from 16 last year and eight in 2006), restructured its March trip and offered customers the option to cancel, reschedule, or continue on without seeing Tibet. But it's holding off on making adjustments to scheduled trips, in hopes that Tibet opens up again.
The crackdown in Tibet has raised ethical questions about travel to the region. On the one hand, tourism can be seen as providing legitimacy to China's response. On the other hand, visiting is a way to learn more about what's happened in Tibet and educating others about its culture.
Travel companies say that not visiting is the wrong approach. Geographic Expeditions offers an essay on its website by a staff member, Tom Cole, saying that travel to Tibet can encourage human rights.
"Renegade governments often clean up their act when they know the outside world is watching," wrote Cole, who first visited Tibet in 1980. He added that travelers "almost invariably come home eager to help, not forget, those people."
Human Rights Watch doesn't have a position on whether tourists should visit Tibet, but says that visitors should be aware of possible human rights abuses. "We call it being an informed traveler," said Minky Worden, media director at Human Rights Watch in New York.
Consider where your tourist dollars are going, she said: "Are you staying in a resort owned by the military? Are you funding the military in an oppressed country?"