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Few foreigners in Tibet despite re-opening after riots
AFP[Thursday, July 31, 2008 12:25]
BEIJING — Foreign tourists and reporters are still few and far between in Tibet, witnesses and hotel employees say, even though China lifted a ban on foreigners visiting the Himalayan region a month ago.

Eight days to the Olympics, and more than four months after anti-Chinese riots rocked the capital Lhasa, prompting authorities to close the region to foreigners, local hotels said there were still few foreign travellers.

"Now business is good, we have a lot of customers," said an employee at a youth hostel on Dosenge Road in downtown Lhasa, where the violence took place.

"But there are not many foreigners, mostly Chinese people."

Foreign correspondents, meanwhile, complained that their applications to go to Tibet were taking a long time to process.

"We have received your application, but we are handling too many journalist applications, it is almost impossible for us to receive all these people right now," Zhang, of the Tibetan Foreign Affairs Office, told AFP which also applied.

"You can apply later. After the (Olympic) Games, there won't be so many people coming," said Zhang, who did not give her full name or title.

Beijing barred all tourists and foreign reporters from going to Tibet after a massive crackdown on violence that erupted in Lhasa on March 14, and then spread to other areas of western China with Tibetan populations.

Exiled Tibetan leaders say 203 people died in the Chinese clampdown on the riots, which began after monks led peaceful protests against 57 years of Chinese rule.

China has reported killing one Tibetan "insurgent" and says "rioters" were responsible for 21 deaths.

Chinese tourists were allowed back in from the end of April, and Tibet re-opened to travellers from abroad on June 25.

A day later, China announced foreign reporters would be able to apply to go and visit the Himalayan region.

Kathleen McLaughlin, an American freelance reporter based in Beijing, was one of the few journalists allowed into Tibet following the re-opening of the region.

McLaughlin, who applied to go along with a Spanish reporter she shares an office with, said authorities told her a Japanese reporting team and an Italian journalist had so far been allowed in since the end of June.

"We booked our own flights and our own hotel, but we had a tour guide from the foreign affairs office," she said.

"We sent them the places we wanted to go to first, then they sent us a schedule which we had to sign. But in the end we didn't follow the schedule closely."

She said the atmosphere in Lhasa was still very tense, with a lot of police keeping watch, armoured vehicles patrolling the city at night, and people were not very forthcoming in casual conversation.

"They are getting more optimistic about things, but they all say it's been a pretty tough year," McLaughlin said.

"Walking around, people were desperate to get me to buy things. A lot of people said there were living off their savings from last year."

Zhang Wenming, an official with the Tibet Tourism Administration, said he estimated that 350,000 tourists had come to the Himalayan region in July, although he said the final statistics would only be released early August.

"Of the estimated 350,000 tourists, there were only over 3,000 foreigners," he said.

But Matt Whitticase, spokesman of the London-based Free Tibet Campaign, said that in practice, it still remained difficult to get into Tibet.

"China is attempting to give an impression of normality in Tibet at the approach of the Olympics," he said.

"But some areas are still under lockdown, and the situation remains as dire as it was in March or April," he said.
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