China plans 'Swiss makeover' for tourism in southeast Tibet

China plans 'Swiss makeover' for tourism in southeast Tibet

"Yodel odle ay hee te:" RMB 400-million international tourism hub breaks ground in Nyingchi
tibet tourism
Nyingchi prefecture in Tibet doesn't see many travelers right now, but that's expected to change in the near future.

China is forging ahead with high-end tourism in the Tibet Autonomous Region, especially in the southeastern region, with the first of 22 planned villages being given a Swiss motif.

Xinhua News Agency (in simplified Chinese only) reported that Guangdong Province will invest more than RMB 400 million (US$63 million) in Nyingchi's (林芝) tourism industry, a prefecture some 400 kilometers east of Lhasa, bordering Myanmar and India.

News of the tourism drive came only weeks after reports of foreign tourists being banned from entering Tibet.

A new draw for Tibet

According to the plan, Guangdong will help build 22 "prosperous model villages" in Nyingchi in counties such as Bomê and Zayü.

“Through cultivating the high-end travel industry, [the plan] will turn southeast Tibet into a new ‘business card’ of Tibetan tourism,” wrote Xinhua.

These new Swiss-style hamlets are due to be completed in the next three years. They are expected to improve Tibetans' economic conditions as well as help locals to host home-stay for travelers.

Nyingchi means “the throne of the sun” in Tibetan. The prefecture stands roughly 3,100 meters above the sea level.

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The “Switzerland of the East”

As the initial part of Guangdong’s partner assistance, construction of one of the 22 villages broke ground in March in Lulang Town (鲁朗), Nyingchi County.

When we travel to Tibet now, we think of Lhasa and the Potala Palace. We hope in the future, people will want to go to Lulang, in addition to those two places.

-- Cai Jiahua (蔡家华), secretary of Nyingchi County Party Committee

According to Dongguan Daily, the tourist complex was designed by Leisure Quest International, a tourism and leisure development and planning company based in California.

Cai Jiahua (蔡家华), secretary of Nyingchi County Party Committee, told Dongguan Daily (in simplified Chinese only) that the plan was to build a “typical Swiss-style tourist town.”

Cai also mentioned two other goals for the new town: to get on the cover of “National Geographic” and to become Tibet’s second landmark.

“When we travel to Tibet now, we think of Lhasa and the Potala Palace,” said Cai during a Lulang town's planning meeting last year. “We hope in the future, people will want to go to Lulang, in addition to those two places.”

Construction of the Lulang section will cost approximately RMB 115 million. It’s scheduled to be completed in 2013.

A railway linking Lhasa and Nyingchi will begin construction in 2013.

Thoughts from a traveler

“Nyingchi is not yet a tourist hot spot in Tibet,” said Billy Zi (字文照), product manager and tour guide of Beijing-based online tour provider Trekiz.

Zi spent about one month in Nyingchi in 2009 and was awed by Nyingchi’s unspoiled nature and Tibetan culture.

“The scenery is so beautiful and peaceful that it’s hard to use words to describe the feeling,” he said.

According to Zi, Nyingchi looks different to other parts of Tibet -- apart from vast grassland, the area is home to lush forest where plateau vegetation grows. It’s also the best location to experience the “Red Hats” culture, a school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Part of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon passes through Nyingchi.

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Zi said the area is not popular with Chinese backpackers yet -- instead many Southeast Asian travelers detour to Nyingchi from the traditional Lhasa-Nepal route.

The best way to reach Nyingchi is from provincial capital Lhasa, Chengdu in Sichuan or Shangri-la in Yunnan.

Zi expressed concerns that the new travel plan might ruin Nyingchi’s aboriginal ecology and, instead, it will use man-made attractions to promote the native scenery and culture.