BEIJING — Tibet will reopen to foreign tourists on April 5, an official was quoted on Monday as saying, in a sign that authorities may ease a crackdown imposed for the anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising.
Chinese riot policemen patrol in front of the Potala palace in Lhasa
State news agency Xinhua quoted Tibet's head of tourism, Bachug, as saying tourist arrivals had been suspended in March "for the sake of travellers' safety" but would resume April 5.
"Tibet is harmonious and safe now," he said, adding that "travel agencies, tourist resorts and hotels are well prepared for tourists," according to the report issued late Sunday.
Authorities imposed the security clampdown in Tibet and adjacent areas to prevent unrest during this month's 50th anniversary of the revolt that led to the flight into exile of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader.
An official at the tourism administration of Tibet, who did not want to be named, confirmed the news to AFP.
"Foreign tourists can go to Tibet but need a confirmation letter from the police," he said.
However, there was confusion about the planned re-opening among travel agents and others in the industry contacted by AFP.
"Foreign tourists can't go to Tibet until April 28th, that's from a notice from the Sichuan Travel Administration," said an employee at the Chengdu China Travel Service agency in southwest China, which organises Tibet tours.
"Foreign tourists need to apply for permission to enter Tibet, and they can't go with a Chinese group."
A worker at a downtown Lhasa hostel was also unaware of the official date, saying he had heard the city would reopen to foreigners on April 14.
The apparent confusion over re-opening mirrors that in late February, when travel agents insisted that the Himalayan region had been closed to foreign travellers, but China's foreign ministry claimed it was business as usual.
The latest clampdown was the second time in a year Tibet had been sealed to foreign tourists.
The central government banned travellers from going to Tibet immediately after riots erupted in Lhasa and neighbouring regions in March of last year on the uprising's 49th anniversary.
Tourism in the Himalayan region has suffered significantly from the subsequent tight security.
Xinhua this month quoted the mayor of Lhasa as saying that only 1.4 million people came to the city last year, a 51 percent drop from 2007.
Revenue from tourism, meanwhile, dropped 59 percent to 1.2 billion yuan (175 million dollars).
China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to an AFP inquiry over when foreign journalists would be allowed to visit Tibet.
Foreign reporters are barred from travelling independently to the Tibet Autonomous Region, and have reported obstructions by security forces in other regions of western China with Tibetan populations amid this year's clampdown.
But China insists the situation in Tibet is stable, and points to what it says is substantial economic and social development in the region -- a claim celebrated Saturday on a new national day called Serf Emancipation Day.
China has ruled the region since 1951, a year after sending in troops to "liberate" Tibet.
Following last year's unrest, foreign tourists were allowed back in at the end of June -- at a time when the world's attention was focused on China ahead of the Olympic Games in August.
But they were only able to go as part of an official tour group and after applying for a permit, before being banned again.