The number of tourists flocking to Tibet this year has exceeded its entire population, a year after the secluded region was linked to the rest of the world by railway - making it the No1 tourism destination on the mainland, and raising fears about the preservation of its unique culture and ecology.
A woman from Shanghai who arrived in Lhasa by train on Thursday night became visitor No3 million this year, making Tibet the first region on the mainland where annual visitors have outnumbered its own population, China News Service reported. Tibet is home to 2.8 million people.
Tibetan tourism authorities are expecting to receive more than 3.8 million tourists this year, more than the total number of tourists from 1980 to 2000.
Tourism experts said it was rare for tourist arrivals to outnumber a place's population.
They expressed concern that Tibet might suffer environmental damage because its tourism infrastructure was less developed than more traditional tourist destinations such as Beijing.
Matt Whitticase, spokesman for the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, said the huge number of expected tourists would have a 'worrying impact on the Tibetans, who are already marginalised'.
But Luorong Zhandui, a researcher at the China Tibetology Research Centre, said most tourists stayed in scenic spots away from nomadic herders and would have little impact on their way of life.
Most heritage sites had limited the number of visitors each day, and the surging number of tourists only resulted in increased prices for admission tickets, he said.
Mr Luorong said that until they reached a certain standard of living, ordinary Tibetans were more concerned with improving their material lives than preserving their culture.
The Qinghai-Tibet railway has stirred controversy among environmentalists and Tibetan rights groups concerned about its potentially harmful effects on the environment, culture and society.
The State Environmental Protection Administration released a survey in July saying 96 per cent of Tibetans polled were happy with the government's environmental protection efforts.