Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the wind, decorating the side of a road in Zhagana.
Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the wind, decorating the side of a road in Zhagana.
Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the wind, decorating the side of a road in Zhagana. (Photo: Will Ford)
Will Ford

How to Manufacture an Ecotourism Paradise

For a picturesque Tibetan village, an increase in tourists represents a complicated past and an uncertain future

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In Central China’s Xiahe airport, a wall near baggage claim features a photograph of Zhagana, a Tibetan village high in the mountains of Gansu province. About 1,300 people live there, in a landscape straight out of Lord of the Rings—peaks of sheer rock tower above the village, conifers cover the hillsides, and a narrow stream runs below terraced fields. In summer, tour buses charge up from the nearby county seat and pause for photos at its best vista. Then they immediately descend. As flag-waving tour guides herd their flocks on and off buses, the lookout becomes a spectacle in itself. Chinese people refer to the routine in a self-deprecating jingle, which rhymes in Mandarin:

Ride the bus and sleep
Park the bus and pee
Get off the bus for pics
Return and remember nothing.

I’d first heard about Zhagana from a Tibetan friend who had once worked in the local tourist bureau. She had seen firsthand how these waves of visitors were changing the village from a quiet town to a thriving outdoor destination. The hoards coming off the buses represented the most visible part of the upsurge, but more significant to the town’s transformation, she said, were middle-class Chinese and a small but growing contingent of Westerners venturing into the surrounding backcountry to trek, camp, and hike. They had triggered a guesthouse boom, fueled by Chinese government subsidies, that was making Zhagana and other mountain towns across the plateau increasingly accessible. Local tourist offices were now using buzzwords like “ecotourism” to advertise their wild landscapes and lure this new demographic of traveler. “Tibet markets itself,” says my friend, who left her tourist bureau job to start her own business selling traditional Tibetan medicine. “Now everyone’s heard how beautiful Tibet is.”

The branding has worked. In 2016, 10 million Chinese tourists visited Zhagana’s greater prefecture—a 30 percent increase from the year before—crowding previously secluded mountain hideaways. “The growth is super-strong right now and really picking up, especially in areas outside of Lhasa and Central Tibet,” says Jed Weingarten, a photographer and ecotourism consultant who has worked with towns in eastern Tibet. The explosion in tourism was changing the region, my Tibetan friend told me last summer, and she encouraged me to see for myself. 

When I visited Zhagana in June, a 14-year-old drove me on his motorbike to his family’s guesthouse. That night, the power cut out; within minutes, flashlights, candles, and moonlight replaced electricity. With the TV off, I asked the family’s patriarch, a man in his late sixties whom I’ll call Tenzin, how Zhagana had so suddenly become a mountain tourist destination. (The subjects of the story wished to remain anonymous due to sensitivity around talking to the foreign press about Tibetan politics.)

He explained that the Chinese government had begun to see outdoor tourism, among other development initiatives, as a promising political tool to integrate remote villages like Zhagana into the Chinese economy. This was particularly true in regions of the Tibetan Plateau outside Central Tibet, like Kham and Amdo, where Zhagana is located. The strategy represented a stark tactical shift away from decades of failed Chinese attempts at assimilating villages by force that started with Chairman Mao Zedong’s occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. “Before, everything we did was about communism,” Tenzin told me, referring to Mao’s disastrous policies through the 1970s. “Now it’s tourism.”

Left with the choice, Tenzin was proud that many families like his own had willingly opened guesthouses to better their lives.

But first, there was a three-decade period of quiet in the 1980s, ’90s, and early aughts when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adapted the country’s economy to capitalism. In Zhagana, villagers recovered from decades of failed experiments in communism, rebuilding their monasteries and dividing plots of land among families again. Harsher tactics returned, however, in 2008, as China prepared for its global beauty pageant in the Beijing Olympics. That March, China’s central news station broadcast news of riots in Lhasa, Central Tibet’s capital, where dubious arrests of local monks incited Tibetans to vandalize neighborhoods gentrified by Chinese migrants. Unrest spread across the plateau.

In Zhagana, a mob descended the mountain road to the county seat of Diebu, where they threw rocks at local government offices. Riot police responded with tear gas, villagers told me. For two weeks after that, police interrogated villagers, cellphones were checked, and phone service was cut off. Families with pictures of the Dalai Lama in their houses or on their phones or who had sent text messages deemed “suspicious” were liable for arrest. PLA soldiers and police increased foot patrols and roadblocks; though the village was never formally sealed, few dared leave their homes. Tenzin’s son, Norbu, who helped run the guesthouse, recalled more than 20 villagers being arrested and held in custody for up to four months. According to Tenzin, they often returned with bruises and had trouble sitting down.

Afternoon mountain shadows cast over Zhagana, where most villagers are racing to open guesthouses.
Afternoon mountain shadows cast over Zhagana, where most villagers are racing to open guesthouses. (Will Ford)

But the CCP’s tactics of intimidation never won over Tibetans. Eventually, officials changed strategy and attempted to buy loyalty instead. In 2012, the Chinese government’s local tourist bureau began promoting the area to visitors, putting up posters like the one in the Xiahe airport. At the same time, they began offering generous loan packages and subsidies for families looking to start businesses. In 2013, Tenzin’s family accepted a blank check of more than RMB 20,000 (about $3,000) from the local government to build a guesthouse—one of the first in town.

During my visit, guesthouse construction was still in full swing, with the sounds of drills and jackhammers ringing out over the valley. One day on the patio, I caught Norbu, handsome and with an energetic smile, considering the dirt road leading down to Diebu, which was scheduled to be paved soon. Five years ago, he recalled, there wasn’t a single guesthouse in town. “Now, every family has one,” he says.

Later, he told me more about how fast the village was changing. These days, electricity was more reliable. More guesthouses had Wi-Fi. Villagers were happy about the standard of living, and Norbu’s family was doing well; they had made all the money back from their initial investments, and they felt in control of their decisions. The terror that followed 2008 was largely over, though the memories still made Norbu shudder. Meanwhile, village traditions endured—the local monastery was full, and most families still had nomadic relatives herding yak on the high mountain grasslands. Tibetan was still the village’s first language.

But the CCP’s influence still loomed over the town and its new economy in subtle ways. I had hoped to camp with Tenzin’s grandson, a shepherd who moved between distant pastures tending sheep and yak, tethering himself to his family’s village as if in orbit around a host star. While he refused to market homestays for trekkers on overnight hikes as other nomads had begun doing, he extended a rare invitation to me to visit his pastures and sleep in his traditional, leaky black tent made of yak wool. I was thrilled. But as soon as I had packed, Tenzin vetoed the trip. It had snowed recently, and he worried that I might slip, that I wouldn’t be able to stomach raw yak milk, or that his son’s guard dog would attack me, unaccustomed to the smell of a foreigner. And if anything were to happen, their relationship with the local CCP tourist bureau, which certified tourist outfits like guesthouses, might be ruined.

Cultural norms were changing as well, Norbu told me. When I asked how, he grimaced. “Before, helping a neighbor with something wasn’t really a big deal,” he said. “Now, people ask for money.” There was an underlying assumption that helping with a neighbor’s renovations could be risky: Improvements to one business might take away customers from another. “We’re richer, but a lot has been lost,” he said.

Norbu also fretted about the erosion of the Tibetan language among young people. He taught the language in a local school, and fewer students were signing up for his classes. They were choosing to focus on Mandarin instead—a choice their parents almost always pushed for, seeing the Chinese market around them.

To her, “Free Tibet” had become a kind of hippy slogan performing a global wokeness; the West now fetishized even her people’s problems.

One day, three Chinese tourists from Lanzhou, the provincial capital seven hours away, checked into Tenzin’s guesthouse. At dinner among themselves, they began criticizing Tibetans as ungrateful for the favorable treatment they received in development money, including the type that had kick-started the guesthouse they were staying in. It was a common complaint among Chinese, who tended to view themselves as noble missionaries bringing modernity to an impoverished backwater of the country that, as they saw it, had forever been a part of China. Tibet’s transformation to a more urbanized society, they believed, was an honorable undertaking, and stories of Tibetan farmers turned guesthouse millionaires resembled the legends of Chinese boomtowns on the coast, worthy of celebration. But when I asked them how this transition could happen smoothly if all Tibetans didn’t aspire to CCP-scale development, there was a momentary silence. Finally, one tourist spoke up.

“Some Tibetans,” he said, frowning, “maybe they’re just happy tending sheep.”

That was an oversimplification, but it touched on the core of the problem. Tibetans tended to be far more skeptical than Chinese about the sacrifices required for CCP-scale economic development. This confounded party leaders; nearly everywhere else in the country, development had ensured political stability. “The extraordinary development of Tibet over the past 60 years points to an irrefutable truth,” said Xi Jinping, China’s president, during a speech in Lhasa. “Without the Communist Party, there would have been no new China, no new Tibet.”

In a different way, Western visitors often remained just as oblivious to Tibet’s complexities. It can be tempting to view Chinese-fueled development as threatening a romanticized land full of peaceful nomads and monks shielded from modernity’s evils. But Tibetans like Norbu and Tenzin cautioned me against casting them as victims. Another Tibetan I knew had been in Lhasa for the riots. She had grown sick of fielding foreigners’ questions about it and rolled her eyes when the Tibetan independence movement was brought up. To her, “Free Tibet” had become a kind of hippy slogan performing a global wokeness; the West, by making Tibet an international symbol of victimhood, now fetishized even her people’s problems.

That narrative also conflicted with her own success as an entrepreneur: She had since migrated to a city and was making good money selling Tibetan jewelry. Another Tibetan guesthouse owner I knew, previously a small farmer, was now making more than RMB 1 million (about $150,000) each summer. And while the Chinese government had helped push the tourist market on Zhagana, Tenzin and Norbu stressed that it was ultimately up to the individual villagers to decide whether they wanted to engage with it. Left with the choice, Tenzin was proud that many families like his had willingly opened tourism businesses to better their lives. No one would soon forget the CCP’s political motives, but it was unfair to blame anyone for being pragmatic.

I thought about all of this as I wandered the mountains around Zhagana. Chinese and Western critiques often devolved into a shouting match when it came to Tibet, yet both felt rooted in different savior narratives. Tibetans themselves were often left in the middle, ignored like a child by two domineering parents whose arguments long ago ceased to be about the child. Meanwhile, most Tibetans I knew were operating despite all the shouting, improvising their way forward and making the best decisions they could in the face of an uncertain future. Tenzin and Norbu didn’t yet know what to make of all the changes in Zhagana and other mountain towns, but they were still the best guides through the backcountry. They welcomed every traveler, led them through the mountains, and told them where to explore next.

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