In a report titled “Culture Clash: Tourism in Tibet,” the group alleges that Beijing’s propaganda, portraying Tibet as both a backwater and a spiritual delight, is making Chinese visitors aggressive and culturally insensitive.
“The propaganda filled marketing of Tibet is encouraging tourism of a kind which generates cultural tension rather than cohesion,” the report argues. “It seems that the Tibetan people are sometimes viewed by Chinese tourists as little more than exhibits, much like zoo animals, there to be photographed regardless of whether they want to be or not.”
The report’s dozen or so images are unverified, lifted from social media and a Chinese-language blog. Yet experts don’t question its accuracy, or doubt the scope of the problem. Any visitor to Tibet will notice that mainlanders with bad manners are a fairly common sight.
The report “is very accurate, [such behavior] is very widespread,” said A. Tom Grunfeld, a professor specializing in Chinese and Tibetan history at the State University of New York. “Chinese tour groups are not something I look forward to. They show no respect, for example thrusting cameras in lamas’ faces.”
But Chinese tourists are behaving badly around the world, if you believe the headlines.
Such behavior is not unique to Tibet. Last year a Chinese teenager scratched his name into a 3,500-year-old Egyptian temple. In Taiwan, there was outcry when a mother from the mainland allowed her child to defecate on the floor of an airport. Chinese tourists have been getting such a bad name for themselves that the government released a tourism law in 2013that called on its citizens to mind their manners on holiday.
So what makes their behavior in Tibet any different? Tibet Watch argues that the culture clash stems from Chinese propaganda that portrays Tibetans as a primitive people, while selling Tibet as a spiritual playground.
“We do believe in the case of Tibet that the government propaganda is very negative and we believe that it is leading people to look at Tibetans in a negative way,” says Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, Tibet Watch’s director.
Grunfeld agrees: “The issue of why is very complex but certainly Chinese propaganda plays a role,” he says. “The government has made no effort to help Chinese people understand or respect Tibetan people or Tibetan culture.”
What makes the problem acute is the explosion of domestic tourists in recent years. Chinese media reported that 12.9 million tourists visited Tibet in 2013, 22 percent more than the previous year. Since foreign tourism is heavily restricted, the bulk are local tourists.
Add to that restrictions on movements for Tibetans compared with Han Chinese who are, with a few exceptions, allowed to move around freely inside Tibet, and there is a lot of resentment, the report argues. Tibet’s roads are riddled with armed checkpoints. Depending on the political climate, Tibetans from different regions may be turned back or require special permits to get through. Han Chinese tourists, however, are waved through.
“The bottom line is that [Tibetans] feel their culture, their language is in jeopardy,” says Grunfeld. “They feel they are second-class citizens.”