(BEIJING) — In a matter of days, the number of expected foreign visitors to Tibet has gone from millions to zero.
Chinese authorities alerted foreign travel agencies on Tuesday that they would no longer be issuing entry permits to Tibet, the latest in a series of regulations being put on travelers there. The announcement follows the self-immolation of two Tibetans last week.
Tibet is no stranger to Chinese interference in its tourism industry. Tibet’s failed rebellion in March 1959 and the event’s annual memorial on National Uprising Day has chronically put the region at odds with the People’s Republic of China.
In 2008, protests after National Uprising Day turned into riots that were met with violence by PRC forces. The Chinese government temporarily closed Tibet to foreign visitors. That is now an annual practice in March, and during other national events significant to the Chinese government.
Now, many are saying that the latest in a string of Tibetan self-immolations led to the country’s shutdown to outsiders. According to Free Tibet, a campaign promoting Tibetan independence from China, there have been more than 30 self-immolations since March 2011. Most recently, on May 27, 2012, two Tibetans were the first to set themselves on fire in Lhasa, Tibet’s tightly-controlled administrative capital.
The shutdown also coincides with the Saga Dawa festival, which celebrates the Buddha’s birth and draws many Buddhists to Tibet. This year, the festival began on June 4, which is also the anniversary of the Chinese government crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests.
While many tourism agencies have learned to adapt and predict the trends on tourism bans, this closure comes as something of a shock. According to Nellie Connelly, marketing director of WildChina, a prominent travel company that regularly coordinates trips to Tibet, Chinese authorities informed the company in mid-May that travelers would only be allowed to visit Tibet in groups of five people of the same nationality. Last week, the government stopped issuing entry permits to Tibet altogether.
Connelly is in the process of rerouting customers whose Tibetan vacations are affected by the new ban. Only those Chinese nationals are allowed to enter the region.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ivana Kottasova and Armelle De Oliveira, CNN
Ashley Fantz, AnneClaire Stapleton and Ed Payne, CNN Newswire