Tibet aims to lure adventure-seekers away from Nepal
Maseeh Rahman in New Delhi
Officials hoping easier access to Mount Everest will prove a draw
Tibet is trying to promote itself to adventurous tourists as a safe alternative to Nepal, its violence-wracked southern neighbour.
Its latest initiative is the inaugural Mount Everest Culture Festival, which officials hope will attract more than 100,000 visitors to Shigatse, Tibet's second-largest city, and the launching point for expeditions to the Everest base camp.
Festival organisers hope at least 10 per cent of those visitors will take advantage of a hitherto rare opportunity to access the peak from the Tibetan side.
If successful, a strong message will have been sent that Nepal is not the only destination for visitors to the Himalayas.
Working in their favour are the many travel advisories that governments around the world have issued against Nepal, the most recent being Russia's. The kingdom has been plagued by a Maoist insurgency that has all but destroyed its tourism industry.
But that has also had an effect on Tibet. Half the foreign tourists flocking to the Tibetan city arrive via Nepal's capital, Kathmandu.
Travel operators have complained that there are not enough flights between the two cities.
Last year, Tibet hosted about 850,000 visitors, generating 970 million yuan (HK$911 million) in revenue. About 130,000 of them were from abroad, with the rest being Chinese.
Despite the negative impact on Asian tourism from the outbreak of Sars, Tibet expects a record one million tourists this year.
Besides opening five mountains higher than 8,000 metres to climbers and trekkers, it has trained local people as mountain guides to rival Nepal's famed Sherpas.
Four Tibetans climbed Mount Everest earlier this year. Climbers also have to pay lower fees in Tibet than in Nepal for climbing the peak, while rules regarding the number of people in an expedition are also more relaxed.
Shigatse, an ancient, 600-year-old city made famous by the Panchen Lama's Tashilhumpu Monastery, is expected to play a vital role in boosting Tibetan tourism.
'Lying in the vicinity of Mount Everest, this region is considered suitable for scientific researchers, mountaineers and tourists,' Tsam Chue, vice-supervisor of the Communist Party for the Shigatse Regional Committee, told the Kathmandu Post.
'We have already upgraded our facilities to accommodate 330,000 tourists,' she said.
Ms Tsam said the authorities planned to develop Tibet as a winter tourist destination. Until now, Tibet's five-month-long winter was categorised as a 'zero tourist' season.
This year, however, tour operators are offering substantial discounts in the hope of attracting the more adventurous foreign visitor.