UPDATED 13 April 2013
Each year I do my best to keep up-to-date on the various travel regulations and restrictions across the Tibetan Plateau. Tibet, including the regions of Amdo and Kham, can sometimes be politically unstable. When areas and regions are unstable, the government (not travel agencies) either closes specific areas or imposes travel regulations, such as group travel. It is important to remember that it is not the travel agencies who impose or even want these regulations, but rather it is the Chinese government who hands down these travel restrictions. Travel agencies must abide by the regulations given to them by the Chinese government.
Here are a list of Current Travel Regulations for each region of the Tibetan Plateau:
Lhasa and the Tibet Autonomous Region
Currently, Lhasa is OPEN to foreign tourists! Permits began being accepted again on 25 March 2013. The current regulations state that no group travel is required, however that could change by the time high season (June through early October) comes. It appears that for now, solo travelers can apply for travel permits. Also, mixed nationality groups can also apply for permits. Remember….permits are just 1 thing that you need in order to travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region! You also need a tour guide, a private vehicle and driver. Only a travel agency can arrange these for you.
This year, the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) is requiring all foreign travelers going to Lhasa and the Tibet Tourism Bureau to pay a tour deposit in advance before they will process travel permits. The deposit depends on the length of your tour and ranges between $500 USD and $1000 USD per person. This sounds strange (and is!), but this deposit is required before your permit can be applied for. This deposit goes towards your tour cost and must be sent to the travel agency you use at least a few weeks before you plan to arrive in Lhasa. This is NOT a rule the travel agencies are making, but rather is a rule handed down to travel agencies from the Tibet Tourism Bureau. So, when your travel agency asks for this deposit, please understand why they are doing it.
There are doubts about Japanese and Norwegian tourists being able to get travel permits for Tibet. Because of disputes that the Chinese government has with these nations, it might not be possible for these people to get permits. It is best to contact an agency and see if they are able to secure permits for you.
Everest Base Camp (EBC) is also now open to foreign travelers. It was closed for most of last year, but is open now for 2013.
All of Chamdo prefecture, with the exception of Rawok Lake (which is only 8 kilometers inside Chamdo prefecture), has been closed to foreign travelers since March 2010 and remains closed for 2013. It is unlikely that this area will reopen this year. This means that the overland routes from Sichuan (Chengdu) and Yunnan (Kunming and Shangri La) will not be able to take place again this year. You will only be able to travel as far as the border of the eastern Tibet Autonomous Region.
The Tibetan Regions in Qinghai Province
Over 95% of the land mass of Qinghai is designated as “Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures”. Qinghai is divided into 6 Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures while one other prefecture has a large amount of Tibetans as well. Over the past 18 months, there have been numerous self-immolations and small protests throughout the province, especially in and around the town of Rebkong, known as Tongren in Chinese. Over the past several months, some people report being able to go to Rebkong without any problems while others have been asked to leave shortly after arriving. It seems that foreigners can go there right now, but the situation could change at anytime.
The Amdo regions of to the south of Qinghai lake (Tsolho / Hainan prefecture) are all open as are all counties in Golok prefecture. The two counties that lie along the north shore of Qinghai Lake, Gangtsa / Gangca and Haiyan are both open to foreign travelers, while the two counties that lie to the north of those 2 counties, Menyuan and Qilian, remain closed as they have been for the past 20 years.
Though there has been some unrest in Yushu prefecture, all six counties remain open to foreign travelers.
The large prefecture of Tsochang / Haixi in far western Qinghai has had some closures in place for more than 20 years. The small city of Golmud is open, but the counties of Delingha and Wulan are permanently closed to foreigners.
The Tibetan Regions in Sichuan Province
Western and Northern Sichuan each contain a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Ngawa / Aba prefecture, part of the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo, is located in northern Sichuan and has had some areas of major unrest the past 2 years. Ngawa / Aba county, one of 13 counties within the prefecture, remains closed indefinitely to foreign travelers. The counties of Dzamtang (Rangtang), Marthang (Hongyuan) and Zoige (Ruo’ergai) have also had political unrest, and are closed from time to time depending on the political climate. The only way of finding out if these counties are open, are to go there and find out first hand. Local police will always say the area is “open”, even if it is closed.
Garze prefecture, part of the traditional Tibetan region of Kham located in western Sichuan, is currently all open to foreign travelers. However, even though this area is open, sometimes the bus stations in Chengdu and Shangri La (Yunnan province) refuse to sell foreigners bus tickets going to counties within this prefecture. This is usually because the bus station attendant is not sure whether the region is open or not and since they don’t know, refuse to sell tickets to foreigners to be on the safe side. There is a small bus station in the Tibetan District of Chengdu, known as Wu Hou Ci. In front of the Kangding Hotel, there is a small bus station that has 2 daily buses leaving each morning to Kangding. This bus station will almost always sell tickets to foreigners even when the other bus stations will not.
The remote Tibetan Autonomous County of Muli, located in southwest Sichuan province, also is open at this time to foreign travelers.
The Tibetan Regions in Gansu Province
Gansu province has one Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture that is part of the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo. Gannan prefecture has been a hot-spot for political unrest for more than a year. Along with several small protests, there have been more than 2 dozen self-immolations in this area. Portions of the prefecture, including Labrang Monastery, were closed in October and November 2012 and again for a short time during Tibetan New Year in 2013, but these areas are now open again to foreign travelers. Check back frequently on the status of this prefecture as its unstableness could cause it to close again at anytime.
The Tibetan Regions in Yunnan Province
Yunnan province has one small Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Dechen (Diqing) prefecture is part of the traditional Tibetan region of Kham and is centered around the large town of Shangri La (Gyelthang in Tibetan). This prefecture is currently open and only very rarely closes to foreign travelers. However, sometime the bus station in Shangri La will refuse to sell bus tickets to foreigners going north to Xiangcheng or Daocheng counties located in western Sichuan even when these areas are open to foreign travelers. This is usually because no one has notified the bus station that western Sichuan is open and in order to be on the safe side, the bus station attendant won’t sell tickets to foreigners.
The travel regulations for all areas of the Tibetan Plateau could change at anytime without any notice. There is no official website or other reliable source of information that posts the travel regulations and closures in Tibetan areas. I will do my best to keep this post updated throughout 2013. Do keep in mind that it is not the travel agencies who make the travel regulations or close specific regions. These decisions are all made by the higher level government of each specific area.
If you have any questions regarding travel regulations or anything else travel related to Tibet, send an email to email@example.com