I recently returned from Lhasa and met with several of my good friends who own travel agencies arranging tours for foreign travelers. After asking them how business was this year, I asked them if they had any major problems with groups. They laughed and told me they were dealing with a major problem just that day. What happened is a group of 6 foreigners had arranged a tour of just the Lhasa area. They booked everything through my friends company, which is owned and managed by a great Tibetan family who are from Lhasa. The group had a great time in Lhasa and had no problems. The second to last day of the groups tour, they produced train tickets proving that they were leaving on the date their permit ended. The next day, one of the agencies drivers took them to the train station and saw them off....or so they thought.
Two days later, my friend's agency gets a phone call from the police in Dram at the Nepal border. The police informed my friend that one of his groups had traveled illegally to the Nepal border by hitching a ride in the back of a truck. It was the same group that they thought had left on the train 2 days before. Turns out, this group left the train station after the driver pulled away. They then made their way to the far west end of Lhasa and found a truck that was willing to give them a ride in the back underneath some tarps. They arrived at the border with an expired permit that was only good for travel within Lhasa. The police checked it and traced the permit number to my friends agency. My friend called this group of 6 and asked them why they did what they did. Before the group even arrived in Lhasa, they signed a document stating that they understood that they had to have a tour guide with them and that all travel outside of Lhasa required additional permits, a vehicle and a driver. Each member of the group signed this document stating that they understood the travel regulations for the Tibet Autonomous Region. However, they chose to break the law and travel on by themselves.
The Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) called my friends office regarding this group that travelled illegally to the border. The TTB told my friends agency that he would be fined Y50,000 ($7350 USD) and faced a possible 3 month business license suspension, which would mean they would have to close their doors for 3 months and not arrange any tours. My friend called this group and asked for an explanation of why they did what they did. The group was extremely rude and refused to accept responsibility. My friend's agency had to send a vehicle all the way to the border to pick the group up. When my friend told the group of foreigners that they would be responsible for paying for the vehicle and guide to pick them up, they threatened my friend by saying that they would write "extremely bad reviews" about them on every major travel forum. Though my travel agency friend knew that he was at no fault, he decided to eat the price of the guide and vehicle in order to protect his reputation. My friend kindly asked this group if they would at least pay for their hotel in Dram. The group angrily said that the agency would have to pay for all of their accommodations. My friend, with his back against the wall trying to protect his reputation, had no choice but to pay for everything for this group: guide, permits, vehicle, driver and accommodations.
This group of 6 travelers thought they were "fighting the system", but in reality they were just causing a small family owned travel agency to get into major trouble. My friends agency isn't some huge multi-million dollar government owned company from Beijing. It is a family of Tibetans from Lhasa who are extremely generous and give to many different aid organizations across Tibet. They help pay for nomad village children to go to university. They have taken in several teenagers from the Everest region and given them job training in how to be guides and office managers. They do projects at orphanages. In fact, they were some of the first people to contact me after the Yushu Earthquake wanting to donate their time and money. These are good Tibetan people who did not deserve to have a group of punk foreigners treat them the way they did.
After much negotiating, my friends agency was able to explain to the tourism bureau exactly what happened and were able to get the fine and business licence suspension dropped. The tourism bureau still faulted my friends agency and told them that their customers are their responsibility until they board the train or flight leaving Lhasa. My friends of course thought this group was on the train leaving Tibet. The tourism bureau told my friend that if something like this ever happens to them again, they will face a minumim 6 month business license suspension and could even get their business license permanently taken away. This would result in over 12 Tibetan office workers to lose their jobs and would cause 15 Tibetan guides and 15 Tibetan drivers to have considerably less work. If something like this happens again, nearly 50 Tibetans could be out of work....all so that a group of foreign travelers can "fight the system".
Are you thinking about trying to travel in Tibet illegally? DON'T! Do you want to go to Everest, but you don't have enough money for a tour so you want to try and set off from Lhasa on your own? DON'T! All foreigners need a permit in their hand in order to board the flight or train to Lhasa. You won't be able to board without it. The permit can only be arranged by a travel agency. If you go to Lhasa legally, but then decide to venture out of Lhasa on your own illegally, you will almost certainly be caught. There are numerous checkpoints all across Tibet. It will be no problem for the police to track down which agency arranged your permit if you are caught in closed areas illegally. All they have to do is type your name in the database and it will show which agency arranged your permit to Lhasa. Your illegal action will probably only cost you a small fine of Y300 or Y500, but you potentially put an entire company at risk. You are not "fighting the system"...you are hurting the local Tibetans. My advice for those wanting to travel illegally, is to stay out of Tibet...you are not helping anyone.
For over 3 years I owned and managed a travel agency that arranged custom tours all across Tibet. I arranged nearly 500 custom tours during that time. Nearly all of the people who came through my office were really great people. However, I had at least 2 groups that caused me major problems and nearly got me heavily fined and shut down. These ignorant, stupid groups nearly cost all of my Tibetan staff their jobs. The Tibetan travel agencies are not the ones making the travel regulations so don't go causing problems for them by breaking the law. You are not helping the Tibetan people by traveling illegally. It is hard enough for Tibetans to get good jobs. Don't come to Tibet to travel illegally and risk getting these hard working businesses fined or shut down.
For information on which travel agencies to use while in Tibet, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org