[photopress:Potala_Palace_Lhasa.jpg,full,alignright]It is not that Lhasa is being banned to the hippy traffic. Rather that the focus is on getting more up-market travelers. New hotels, typically partnerships between a mainland or Hong Kong developer and foreign manager, will be offering luxury accommodation. Which has not always been associated with visits to Lhasa.
Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University, said, ‘In Tibetan urban areas, the kind of development China’s government has decided on is ultra-fast development. Five-star hotels are seen as highly symbolic of crystallizing that development.’
Tibet’s towns and small cities are changing fast and the region’s economic growth rate, at 13.4% last year, has been one of the highest in China.
Tourism to Tibet is soaring with the help of the new railway line, which opened last July, running south from Qinghai province to Lhasa. Nearly 2.5 million visitors landed in the region last year, up 40% from 2005. Although more than 90% of the tourists were domestic travelers the move is still inexorably upmarket.
Local tourism officials expect to host three to four million tourists this year. Tibet’s current population is 2.7 million.
An expatriate-run company, TZG Partners, is investing about US$100m to launch a luxury train service, offering king-sized beds and butler service, either this year or next.
There are already three high-end boutique hotels under construction with one opening last year and Starwood Hotels to open under its St Regis brand. There is also one due from Singapore-based Banyan Tree Holdings. The developers of these projects have already made land agreements and are now in the design phase.
Lhasa officials are very cautious about developing the city. Part of their strategy is to attract upper-class tourists so the city does not become a backpacker haven.
William Zhao, of hospitality consultants HVS International, does not expect activist campaigns to have a big impact on international hoteliers managing projects in Lhasa. ‘They must go to do business and not end up being politicized.’