Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Trouble in Tibet

As violent protests against Chinese rule continue, tourists are being urged to avoid Tibet. With many companies now postponing tours through the end of April, the question is, how long will this last? High season in Tibet starts in May. Given tourism's economic impact on the country--$390 million flowed in during 2006--the continued protests may have significant short-term economic effects. The longer-term question may be how the escalating protests will impact tourism to the Beijing Olympics in August. The violence in Tibet erupted just two weeks before Olympic celebrations kick off with the start of the torch relay.

On the government front, the granting of travel permits required for visitors to Tibet has been temporarily discontinued by China. The U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert, advising Americans to defer travel to Tibet at this time. For those already in the country, the alert advises the avoidance of "areas where demonstrations are taking place. U.S. citizens in Lhasa should seek safe havens in hotels and other buildings and remain indoors to the extent possible." It is interesting that the State Department has not gone the more definitive route of issuing a travel warning, which the Canadian government has done. Those who say that State's travel alert/travel warning system can be rather political in nature may have more fodder here.

Even before the travel alert came out, many U.S.-based tour operators started canceling upcoming trips to the region. High-end tour operator Travcoa canceled its Tibet-focused trip departing on April 21. Pacific Delight Tours has notified customers going to Tibet this month that trips are being postponed. SITA World Tours says its Beijing office has advised against sending tours into Tibet until the end of April.

This brings up a very important matter to travelers. If a tour operator cancels a trip, the consumer may not necessarily get his or her money back. Refunds may depend on the specific situation or the specific tour operator. I was surprised to learn that some high-end operators do not refund money for trips they cancel due to political events. Instead, some companies will only apply monies paid to other trips. Travcoa, however, has a policy that is more generous. According to Louise Shumbris, vice president of product development, "we try to be as liberal as we can regarding our refund policy." In the case of the April Tibet cancellation, Travcoa has offered full refunds to consumers. It did the same after canceling trips to Kenya last month.



--The number of visitors to Tibet reached four million in 2007, compared with about 2.5 million the previous year. Most of the visitors are Chinese. In recent years, fewer than 200,000 foreigners have visited annually.

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