The Chinese authorities appear to have U-turned on plans to allow foreigners back into Tibet next month amid fears that protesters could disrupt the Olympic flame’s trip to the summit of Everest.
Their decision comes in the wake of demonstrations which have dogged the torch relay on its passage through London, Paris and San Francisco and look set to continue in other cities.
The flame’s trip to the top of the world’s highest mountain has been described by the Chinese organisers as one of the highlights of its tour – and by Tibetan support groups overseas as its most contentious stop. They argue that it symbolises China’s control of the region.
Tibet’s tourism authority announced last week that the region would reopen to foreign holidaymakers on May 1, having been closed to non-Chinese travellers since riots broke out in Lhasa in mid-March.
But today travel agents said the bureau had ordered them to stop arranging such trips, citing the need to secure safe passage for the Olympic torch relay to Everest in early May.
While the main flame continues its journey around the world, another flame was taken from the lighting ceremony in Beijing to Tibet because experts predicted the best conditions for an ascent would be next month.
Officials had closed the north face of Everest before last month’s riots began – citing environmental concerns – and persuaded Nepal to block access. Many believe they fear a repeat of last year’s protest by five US mountaineers, who unfurled banners calling for Tibetan independence.
An employee at the Tibet China Youth Travel Service, based in Lhasa, told the Associated Press news agency: “We received the emergency notice from the tourism bureau that, considering the safety of the torch which will go
to Mount Everest in May, agencies are not allowed to receive tourist groups and foreign tourists.”
He added that the government’s decision would hurt Tibet’s burgeoning tourism industry, but that he expected trips to resume after the torch relay to Everest.
An employee of the Tibetan Tourism Bureau confirmed that changes have been made to the original decision to reopen the region.
Yesterday, Tibet’s governor, Qiangba Puncog told a press conference: “For these separatist forces, the Olympics in Beijing will be a rare opportunity.
“I don’t doubt they will create trouble during the torch relay in Tibet,” he said.
The main torch will also pass through Tibet in June, on its way back to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the games.
The People’s Armed Police (PAP) newspaper reported today that commanders have ordered the force to ensure “internal security and stability” for the Olympics as well as tackle terrorist threats.
The PAP has led the crackdown on riots in Lhasa and protests in other parts of China with large Tibetan populations.
Commanders called the security tasks highly “political and sensitive”, and stressed that Chinese President Hu Jintao had made security concerns a top priority for a successful Olympics.
The paper last week issued a “political mobilisation order” to PAP troops telling them to prepare for an arduous time ensuring order and control before and during the games.
Journalists have been prevented from entering areas where unrest has taken place – except for a handful allowed on to strictly limited state-organised tours – despite a special law allowing them to travel outside Beijing without notifying the authorities in the run up to the Olympics.
But Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said this morning he had pressed Beijing to fully implement the new regulations.
Speaking after a meeting with the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, Rogge said: “We know the implementation of this [media] law is not perfect, there are shortcomings. I have asked the authorities to implement the media law in full … and I have insisted this must be done as soon as possible.”
Separate restrictions still apply to reporting in Tibet.