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Development debate clouds Asia's holiest peak

April 7, 2009

Earth Times/DPA
Apr 6, 2009

Beijing -- For centuries, only a few hardy
tourists have joined the hundreds of Buddhist,
Hindu, Jain and Tibetan Bon pilgrims who make an
annual trek to Asia's holiest peak, Mount
Kailash. Many Tibetan nomads still walk across
the high plains and mountains that isolate
Kailash from the rest of the world, often
carrying tents, bedding and cooking pots on packhorses.

The Tibetans' traditional pilgrimages to the
6,675-metre holy mountain can take weeks or even
months, especially if they perform prostrations
along the whole route, but most now reduce the
journey to a few days by hiring trucks or jeeps.

Tourists usually reach the area from India or
Nepal by crossing China's nearby Himalayan
borders or from Lhasa, the capital of China's Tibet Autonomous Region.

That could change dramatically next year when
planeloads of tourists are scheduled to begin
arriving at a newly expanded airport in Tibet's
Ali, also known as Nagri, which administers Kailash.

The airport expansion is a key part of a
government plan for development of tourism
infrastructure to create a new Sacred Mountain
Holy Lake Scenic Area around Kailash and the
nearby Lake Manasarovar, said Li Yujian, head of the Ali tourism bureau.

"Ali airport has finished construction and will
be put into trial use this year and full use next year," Li said by telephone.

"My expectation is that at the beginning, there
will be one flight to Lhasa every few days," he
said. "We will gradually adjust the flights
later, according to the rise in the number of tourists."

The state-run Tibet Tourism company has acquired
the development rights to the new Kailash scenic
area in cooperation with Ali's Burang county government, Li said.

Tibet Tourism plans to invest up to 600 million
yuan (88 million dollars) over the next few years
to "make the Sacred Mountain Holy Lake Scenic
Area into a national-level, and even a
world-level, fine-quality tourist area," a Tibet
regional government website reported.

It plans to upgrade the main road from Lhasa and
build hotels and restaurants near Kailash, where
the small village of Darchen serves as the
transit point and campsite for Tibetan pilgrims.

The price of a tourist ticket for the Kailash
area, to which Tibetans are admitted free, has
already risen to 200 yuan, Li said.

"We expect several thousand tourists this year," he said.

"Last year, the situation was really bad," Li
said, apparently referring to the ruling Chinese
Communist Party's suspension of tourism in Tibet
for much of the year after widespread unrest and anti-Chinese protests.

"There will be a sharp rise in the future," he
said of the tourism development plan. "I am confident of that."

China has already developed several Tibetan areas
into major tourist destinations, such as Lhasa
and the official Shangri-la tourist town in Yunnan province.

The Communist Party said it has improved the
economies of some of the country's poorest and
remotest areas by attracting tourists from China's affluent cities.

Yet supporters of Tibetan exiles argued that the
development largely benefits China's Han ethnic
majority and rides roughshod over Tibetan culture and religion.

"Tibetans welcome appropriate and responsible
development that respects their cultural and
religious traditions but not the fast-track
commercialization that Beijing is prioritizing in
so many areas of Tibet including now in the
sacred Mount Kailash region," said Kate Saunders,
communications director of the Washington-based
International Campaign for Tibet.

Saunders said evidence from local businesses in
other Tibetan areas suggested that most tourism revenues leave the region.

"Claims that it will help develop the area are,
essentially, bogus," Matt Whitticase of the
London-based Free Tibet Campaign said of the
tourism development in Tibetan areas.

"The model is effectively based on rapidly
developing infrastructure ... with little or no
regard to how that model of tourism is impacting
on the environment," Whitticase said.

As well as upgrading access to Kailash, local
authorities have improved the pilgrims' path, or
kora, around the snow-capped peak in recent years.

Trucks and jeeps can now drive along about half
the 57-kilometre kora, raising speculation that a
circular vehicle route could be completed by
building a road over the steep 5,636-metre pass
of Dolma-la, where Tibetan pilgrims believe they are reborn.

An official from Tibet Tourism declined to
discuss its plans for Kailash, saying only that
the project was "in preparation" and a senior
official had discussed it with the national
government in Beijing in early April.

But Li said the development would "protect normal
religious activity" and the environment around
Kailash. It was "impossible" to complete a road around Kailash, he said.

"It is a sacred place, and a road would kill its sacred meaning," Li said.
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