Imagine my surprise when the tour company sent me an email where the first sentence began with, “Tibet is closed…” My first thought was scam, but I decided to do a little research and to my relief and disbelief, Tibet is indeed closed to foreign travelers EVERY year for the months of February and March. Really. This closure isn’t advertised, nor can you find it on any official websites. In fact, if you call and talk with someone at the Tibet Tourism Bureau, they’ll tell you that Tibet has never been closed to visitors.
A little background: The closure is a result of civil unrest that occurred in March 2008 when certain sensitive anniversaries are recognized. Specifically, Tibet Uprising Day occurs on March 10th to commemorate the armed uprising that occurred in March 1959. The uprising resulted in a violent crackdown in Lhasa and the Dalai Lama fleeing to India on March 30, 1959, where he has been in exile ever since. Because of these anniversaries, the Chinese government closes Tibet and I’m sure the official reason is for public safety. However, I suspect the government is also trying to give Tibetans less of an audience by keeping out anyone with a camera.
Our plan includes traveling from Shanghai to Lhasa in early April. No problem, I thought. Except that to travel in Tibet, one needs a TTP (Tibetan Travel Permit) issued by the Tibet Tourism Bureau, which is closed until the last Monday in March. When they reopen, they start processing travel permits again, including the backlog of requests, all at bureaucratic speeds, of course. I’ll be lucky to get the TTP within the first week of April. The TTP can only be request for you by a government approved tourist agency and is only valid when you are accompanied by a Tibetan guide. The tourist agency will send the TTP to you at your hotel once they receive it. As a result, I may have to delay the trip a bit, which throws off other dates in our itinerary.
So, if your travel plans include a trip to Tibet, be aware of the annual closure in February and March and avoid planning any travel within two weeks of those months. One other important tip: don’t list Tibet as a destination when you apply for your Chinese visa. As a foreigner, your visa request will likely be denied.