AN EXPENSIVE five-year restoration of the Potala Palace, among the holiest of all Tibetan structures, will be completed within days, when the doors open to the Dalai Lama's former residence on the Rooftop of the World. Chinese authorities plan a gala celebration on Tuesday. Dignitaries, including tourism officials from Hong Kong, have been flown into the reclusive realm. They will land at Gongkar airport, which after a $390 million expansion forms a key plank in the controversial Chinese plan to increase tourism in Tibet threefold. Minstrels and dancers will perform at stage-managed ceremonies that begin today, on Shoton, the annual Tibetan harvest festival. However, most prominent among all the guests will be the one most noticeably absent: the Dalai Lama, exiled since the Chinese takeover of Tibet four decades ago, will not be rejoicing. ''There will be no celebrations among Tibetans. For us, it's just another example of the death of our culture, another nail being driven by the Chinese into our coffin,'' said Lodi Gyari, president of the International Campaign for Tibet and a close confidante of the Dalai Lama. ''They are turning the Potala Palace into a monument, a museum of a vanquished people,'' he said. ''Our most sacred palace will become nothing more than a mere showpiece of tourism for Chinese package tours. ''There is nothing to celebrate,'' he said. ''This is another sad day for Tibet and Tibetans everywhere.'' Others, including human rights activists, question the motives behind the restoration of the palace. China maintains the sprawling 13-storey palace was desperately in need of an overhaul. The 1,000-room palace in Tibet's traditional capital dates to the seventh century, but was rebuilt by the fifth Dalai Lama during the 17th century. The palace not only provided reception rooms and residential quarters for each succeeding Dalai Lama, the spiritual ruler of Tibet, but also a resting place for their remains. China spent an estimated $60 million to $90 million on the restoration, roughly the total spent on repairs on all of Tibet's monasteries throughout the 1980s. The formidable hilltop palace overlooks Barkor Square, an ancient quarter of traditional houses and an open market. At the centre of the square is Jokhang Temple, the holiest temple in Tibet. These three holy sites have served as focal points of the ongoing independence movement in the troubled region. Despite an atmosphere of calm promoted by the mainland, the crackdown on religious leaders continued. London-based human rights group Amnesty International has documented increased unrest and arrests. The protests have not just been against Chinese rule, as in the past, but also over price increases and housing. ''The number of Tibetans in prisons has doubled in the past year and a half,'' said Robin Tassie, an Amnesty specialist on China and Tibet. ''And the majority of these prisoners are monks and nuns.'' Police have been scouring the hotels of Lhasa to remove potential troublemakers prior to the opening of the palace this week, according to reports received by the Tibet Information Network in London. ''They seem to want a squeaky-clean celebration,'' said Robbie Barnett, director of the network. Sources also reported rumours that precious items had been pilfered from the palace and sold by Chinese workers. Many Tibetans fear the Chinese have turned the sacred site into a new centre of subterfuge. Besides fire safety monitoring devices and re-wiring, the modernisation of the castle is known to include widespread television surveillance equipment. In addition to worries about internal spying, some critics said the renovation was simply to further plunder the region's tourism potential. ''The renovations to the Potala Palace have been made in total disregard of the wishes of the Tibetan people,'' Mr Gyari said. ''The Chinese never consulted our scholars or monks. They are destroying our history. ''This palace is not an ancient monument to us,'' he said. ''It's part of our very life. China is trying to turn all of Tibet into a museum collection.'' Short of returning these holy sites to Tibet's former rulers, Mr Gyari would like to see them put under international protection. ''We want the United Nations, perhaps UNESCO or another impartial organisation, to oversee these sites not only for the Tibetan people, but as world heritage sites,'' he said. ''They have stolen the Potala Palace from us, like they have taken our country. There's a danger of Tibet becoming more like Disneyland every day, with the Tibetans themselves, and our sacred history, as the exhibits.'' And so there will be dancing and singing this week in Lhasa, but no joy for Tibetans, Mr Gyari predicts. ''There is so much sacrilege,'' he said. ''When we protest, we must protest the injustice done in Tibet every day.''