Candlelight vigil in Dharamsala

Candlelight vigil in Dharamsala, India organized by the Solidarity Committee on April 05, 2008 in honor of recent demonstrations in Tibet. (ICT)

As protests surround the arrival of the Olympics flame in San Francisco, the Chinese authorities have postponed the re-opening of the Tibetan Autonomous Region for tourism. This is likely to be due to concerns over bringing the torch through Tibet and in an attempt to keep the extent of the crackdown hidden from the outside world. It had previously been announced by Chinese officials that the TAR would open again for tourism on May 1, but according to reliable reports it seems that re-opening may now not be until after the Olympics.

The Chinese authorities have slowed down visa procedures and stopped issuing multiple entry visas to China from Hong Kong, a major gateway for travel into China, according to travel agencies.

TAR Party chairman Jampa Phuntsog said today at a news conference in Beijing that if there are any “problems” during the Olympic torch relay from Tibetans, “We will without doubt deal with these persons severely…we will not be merciful.”

The TAR has been closed to domestic and foreign tourists since March 16, after protests began on March 10 in Lhasa, following by a riot on March 14. Zhanor, deputy director of the TAR’s tourism bureau, had said that organized tours and independent travelers could return to Tibet on May 1, according to China Daily, an official English-language newspaper. This is no longer the case, according to ICT sources, following an emergency meeting among tourism officials in Lhasa.

The postponement of the re-opening of the TAR indicates that it does not want outside witnesses to the current crackdown in Tibet.

The Chinese authorities are now only issuing single- or double-entry travel visas to foreigners in Hong Kong, according to information from travel agencies, scaling back a visa program that used to issue multiple-entry business visas that lasted up to three years. Travel agents in Hong Kong told journalists that the restrictions on the multiple-entry visas were a result of China’s concern over attacks on China’s human rights record because of the crackdown in Tibet, and also following the disruption of the Olympic torch relay in Paris and London in the past few days. Chinese officials may have ordered the restrictions to keep tighter watch on tourists before the Olympics, some of the travel agents said, according to a report published today by the Associated Press. Hong Kong-based travel agent Forever Bright Trading Ltd. said on its Web site that multiple-entry visas were suspended from March 28 until October 17.

The Olympic torch relay has met protests in Athens, London, Paris and San Francisco during the first part of its international tour. Demonstrators calling for an end to the crackdown in Tibet and increased human rights and democracy in China clashed with police and Chinese security, disrupting the torch relay in London on Sunday and forced organizers to end the relay early and extinguish the flame at least five times in Paris on Monday.

A Tibetan exile who participated in demonstrations against the torch relay and who has close connections in eastern Tibet told ICT: “The intensity of the campaign against the torch relay at an international level is because of what’s happening in Tibet. The postponement of the re-opening of Tibet to tourists is a sign that this crackdown has reached a very serious level and China doesn’t want the world to know about it.”