Responsible tourism is something world travelers should all be aware of, particularly while in Tibet. Tibet, with its vast grasslands, high mountains and alpine lakes has seen a huge increase in tourism since the train to Lhasa began operating in 2006. It no longer takes days or weeks to reach Lhasa. In 2007, over 4 million people visited Tibet...an average of 11,000 people per day (UPDATE: The 2009 summer saw upwards of 25,000 tourists per day arriving in Lhasa). The Tibetan Plateau is the source of many of Asia's most important rivers and trekking in these head water regions has become increasingly more popular. With the drastic increase in tourism to Tibet comes the possibility of doing damage to its sensitive ecosystem and cultural ways. Unfortunately, a lot of times we as travelers do harm unknowingly to these places and people we came to see. Here are some ways that you can be a responsible tourist while in Tibet.
The first is to be responsible in the travel agency that you choose. There are now travel agencies in just about every major Chinese city as well as in major cities across the globe that arrange tours to Tibet. Try and choose a travel agency that is actually based on the Tibetan Plateau and is managed and staffed by Tibetan people. A Chinese travel agency based in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou probably knows very little about Tibet and often times the person answering emails in these agencies has never even been to Tibet or seen a Tibetan person. By choosing a local Tibetan agency to use, more of your tourism money will be put back into the economy of the Tibetan people. Try and use as many Tibetan owned hotels, shops and restaurants as possible. This will also help to better the economy of the Tibetan people. If your guide and driver did a good job on your tour, don't hesitate to give them a tip. Since the tourism season is relatively short in Tibet, guides and drivers make the bulk of their money during the busy summer season. If your guide and driver took good care of you and helped to educate you more about Tibet, you should give them each a tip.
There are numerous guidebooks on Tibet available. Do as much research as possible regarding Tibet before you arrive. The Tibetan culture is quite unique and travel to Tibet is much different that other parts of the world. Try and research the area as much as possible to avoid confusion and frustration later on.
Traveling in Tibet is much different than traveling in the rest of China. Travel in Tibet is similar to travel in Bhutan in that you can only enter as part of a tour. You don't need to be in a large group tour with a bunch of strangers. It is possible to be in a group as a solo traveler or with your friends and family. Every person entering the Tibet Autonomous Region has to have a Tibet travel permit. This permit can only be arranged through a travel agency. You cannot get it on your own or at a Chinese embassy or consulate. Travel in the TAR has to be guided. You will have a licensed tour guide with you each day. If you travel outside of Lhasa, you will have to do so by private vehicle. You cannot travel outside of the Lhasa city limits using public transportation.
Over the years I have heard of many reports of foreigners breaking the law while in Tibet by traveling off to different regions on their own without their tour guide or by entering Tibet without any permits. I understand that a lot of people do not like the tourism policies of Tibet. I cannot say that I always enjoy them either, but by breaking the law and traveling off on your own, you can cause serious problems. If you arrange a tour with a certain company to go to Lhasa, your permit is only valid for travel in Lhasa and for the duration of your tour. After your tour if you decide to break the law and stay in Tibet and travel off on your own, as soon as you get caught by the police (there are checkpoints throughout Tibet) they will run your name in the tourism database and find the travel agency that arranged your permit. The police will then contact that agency and ask them why they allowed a foreigner to travel to restricted areas without additional permits, guide or private vehicle. The travel agency, which has no idea that you are still in Tibet, could then be fined up to Y50,000 and even lose their license and be forced to close their business. You will only be fined between Y300 and Y500, but you could potentially put Tibetan people out of a job. If you travel to Tibet, please be responsible and abide by the laws. Please do not travel to restricted areas without booking a tour.
Be respectful when entering into a Buddhist temple or monastery. Dress appropriately by wearing long pants rather than shorts or skirts. Take your hat off before entering and take your shoes off when required. Try to avoid talking loudly while inside and do not take pictures without asking permission first (in popular monasteries there will be a fee to take photos inside a monastery). Walk in a clock-wise direction inside Buddhist monasteries and in a counter clock-wise direction in Bon monasteries. Most monasteries do not allow women to enter the protector chapel and some monasteries forbid women altogether (Rabgya Monastery in Golog is one example). Women should avoid touching monks and men should avoid touching nuns.
When trekking in Tibet it is extremely important to be responsible. Pack out all of your trash. Try to minimize your waste by not bringing food wrapped in excessive plastic. Use reusable cups, plates and silverware rather than plastic. Don't use the bathroom near lakes or rivers. Make sure your laundry and dish detergent is environmentally safe. Avoid using even environmentally safe detergents near water sources. Keep on existing paths and avoid making new paths. Soil erosion is a major problem in many regions of Tibet. When camping, make sure you get permission from the local nomads. Nomads always have large dogs that will attack people they are unfamiliar with. By asking permission first, the nomads will usually make sure their dogs are tied up and not trying to devour you.
Even though Tibet is extremely poor, try to avoid passing out money or candy as it encourages begging. Also try to avoid passing out medicine. There are several travel agencies and organizations that do projects across Tibet. Try to donate to these organizations rather than passing out medicine or clothes on your own.
Don't pay people to take their picture and never take pictures of people who do not want their picture taken. If you tell someone that you will send them the pictures, make sure you follow up on this. Most guides in Tibet go to the main destinations many times each year and would be quite happy to deliver your pictures the next time they are in that area.
Avoid political discussions while in Tibet. You could get yourself in trouble, but more importantly you could get the person you are talking to in worse trouble.
If you have any questions regarding travel in Tibet, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org