Not all travel agencies arrange quality tours. This post is about how to choose a reputable and safe travel agency for your journey across Tibet.
Several months ago I wrote a post about Rude Travelers in Tibet (http://www.thelandofsnows.com/rude-travelers-in-tibet/) where I wrote about some of the horrible experiences many of my friends working in tourism in Tibet have encountered from travelers over the years. In this post, I am going to write about some of the horrible experiences travelers have had from the travel agencies they have used to arrange their tour of Tibet. Every week I hear either first hand reports from people who have had terrible experiences with travel agencies or I hear about it from emails sent to me.
The intention of this post is NOT to call out specific travel agencies that I have heard bad reports from. Every travel agency, even the very best, has the occasional tour that doesn’t go as planned. The intention of this post is to make sure travelers research the agency they are wanting to use to make sure that the agency not only has competitive prices, but also have a good safety record, good customer service and good business ethics. If you have followed me on this website for a while, you will know that I gladly volunteer my time each day to answer emails from people across the globe who are planning to travel to Tibet, including the Amdo and Kham regions. In 2014, I have received nearly 1000 emails from travelers planning a journey to Tibet and am happy to say that I have answered over 90% of those emails (free of charge), many with quite a long reply. My goal has always been to give travelers the best and most accurate travel information on Tibet.
Welcome to Tibet! We demand more money!
Last year, 2014, was a major pilgrimage year for Buddhist’s and Hindu’s with Mt. Kailash in western Tibet being the main destination. Last spring, I was contacted by a group of 20 Hindu’s from India who were traveling together, via Nepal, to Kailash. They contacted a travel agency over two months in advance. The travel agency gave them a price for each person, which the group of Indians agreed to. As is customary, the group of Indians paid for the tour in advance. However, when the group of Indians arrived at the Tibet-Nepal border town of Dram (Zhangmu in Chinese) the travel agency told the group of 20 that each of them needed to pay an additional $400 per person ($8000 total) in order for the tour to continue. The travel agency said that they had made a mistake in the tour calculation and “didn’t realize it” until the group arrived at the Tibet border. The travel agency had given this group a price quote 2 months before they arrived in Tibet and confirmed it with the group again a couple of days before the group arrived at the Tibet border. I am quite sure that this was done by the travel agency simply because they were a group of Hindu pilgrims going to Kailash during an important pilgrimage time and the agency knew they could extort more money out of the group. There is no other explanation. The sad thing is that this specific travel agency has a history of doing this before…..demanding more money once the travelers arrive in Tibet. I told the Indian group about this travel agency’s unethical practices, but she used them anyway because of the “low price” they offered. She found out in the end, after having to pay an additional $400 per person for the tour to continue, that this agency was more expensive than almost all of the others she contacted. The reputable travel agencies will never make their customers pay more for their tour once they arrive in Tibet than the price quoted to them.
By the way, you aren’t going to Everest Base Camp!
Several years ago, the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) closed the Everest Region unexpectedly to all travelers. The TTB made this clear to all travel agencies. The closure happened for a brief time during the early winter time. A group of 4 travelers, who were all related, specifically were traveling to Tibet to photograph the Tibet side of Everest. The goal of their journey was Everest. This group had heard that the TTB had closed Everest and contacted their travel agency immediately. They told the travel agency that they would like to cancel their Tibet journey due to Everest being closed because, again, photographing Everest was their main reason in going to Tibet. The travel agency responded that there was no need to cancel their journey as they guaranteed that Everest would be open again by the time they arrived in Tibet a few weeks later. So this group took the travel agency’s word that the Everest region would be open by the time they arrived. Before departing for Tibet, they contacted the travel agency again, who assured them that their journey to Everest would go as planned. You can’t imagine how disappointed this group was when they arrived in Lhasa and was told by their travel agency that they were not going to be able to go to Everest. This agency, like all of the other travel agencies specializing in Tibet, knew that the Everest region was closed, however, they continued to deceive this group because they didn’t want them to cancel their tour. This group complained to the manager of this travel agency who at first refused to give any type of refund. This group was lied to, plain and simple. The travel agency knew that the Everest Region was closed, but continually lied to the group and told them that the area would reopen when the Tibet Tourism Bureau had made it clear that it was closed. After a couple of days of arguing with the manager, the group was finally given a small refund on their tour. A reputable travel agency will be honest with you regarding closures and will advise you to either change your itinerary or reschedule it for another time to avoid closures.
Ummmm….we forgot about your permit!
In recent years, I have heard from quite a few people who have not been able to go to Tibet simply because the travel agency they contacted forgot to process their permits. Some travel agencies can get very busy during the high season, however, this still isn’t an excuse to forget to process travel permits. Most of these travelers who didn’t receive their permits were on a tight schedule and didn’t have time to wait the required 10 to 15 days to have their permits processed. So their plan of going to Tibet wasn’t able to happen. Choosing a travel agency with a good customer service record is important.
Wait….Who exactly is arranging our tour??
There are several really great budget hostels to choose from in Chengdu that have helpful English speaking staff, serve good Chinese and Western food and offer budget tours to destinations across China and to Tibet. The only thing is that most of these hostels don’t actually have a license to arrange tours. In fact, I don’t know if any of them do. What these hostels do is outsource all of their tours to other travel agencies. These agencies could be in Chengdu, Beijing, Guangzhou….or any other major city in China that arranges “no frills” tours to Tibet. If things go wrong on these ultra-budget tours, which they often do, it can be difficult to find out who to actually contact in regards to the tour. Most of the hostels in Chengdu have you sign some sort of a waiver that releases them from responsibility in case something goes wrong. So if you call the hostel when something goes wrong with your tour, they usually will direct you to call a person in Lhasa as the hostel isn’t actually arranging your tour….someone else is (you just don’t know who!). So you call the local number in Lhasa that the hostel in Chengdu gives you and you get only Chinese speakers on the line. They don’t understand you and you can’t understand them. They then somehow communicate to you that you need to call their office in Beijing and give you another number. You call the Beijing number only to find that the number rings and rings and is never answered. After a day or two, you simply give up trying to call someone in regards to your tour and continue on your horrible Tibet journey. You never find out who actually arranged your tour. Chances are whatever agency arranged your tour has a less-than-good reputation. Rather than use these hostels that outsource their tours to unknown travel agencies of ill-reputation, contact a locally owned, Tibet-based travel agency instead. Many budget travelers still think that you have to go to Chengdu, contact a travel agency and begin your trip to Tibet from there, which was true 10 or 15 years ago. Now you can directly contact reputable Tibetan owned travel agencies right in Lhasa and they can arrange everything for you in advance. I know several travel agencies in Lhasa that specialize in budget tours WITHOUT compromising the safety of their clients. (NOTE: Tibet is NOT a budget travel destination! However, by traveling with a small group of people, the costs of a Tibet journey can be considerably cheaper compared to traveling on your own). For recommendations on budget travel agencies that still provide good service and quality tours, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
My guide can’t speak any English…and he/she isn’t Tibetan!
This is probably the most common complaint that I hear from travelers to Tibet….that their required guide could not speak English. To be fare, it can be difficult for guides to understand various English accents from across the globe. Even I have difficulties with that from time to time. However, there are guides in Lhasa who can’t understand or speak even basic English. If you have a guide whose level of English is unacceptable, call the travel agency you are using before you leave for Lhasa. They almost always will change the guide for you.
Though it is not very common, I do still hear reports (and have seen firsthand myself) of foreign travelers having to use a Chinese guide in Tibet rather than a local Tibetan guide. It’s always better to use a local Tibetan to explain Tibetan culture, customs and religion than someone from faraway Mainland China. Make sure the agency that you choose uses local Tibetan guides. All of the Tibetan-owned travel agencies will only employ local Tibetans as guides and driver.
Have you arranged tours before??
Numerous times over the past few years I have heard from travelers who had horrible experiences traveling in Tibet while using new travel agencies that don’t have a lot of experience in tourism in Tibet. Problems have ranged from permits not being processed, significantly more money being required upon arrival in Lhasa than what was originally quoted, old vehicles that have broken down, train tickets not being purchased and hotels not being booked. While new travel agencies will usually offer lower prices, you will most likely have to deal with inexperience that could cause major problems or delays in your journey to Tibet. It is best to use a reputable travel agency that is well established.
This is the vehicle taking me to Everest??
Reputable travel agencies will always do a good job to make sure their vehicles are clean and well maintained. Last year I took a vehicle to Everest that had a high amount of kilometers on it, but my driver told me that the engine had less than 15,000 kilometers on it and that the vehicle ran like new. Again, good travel agencies will make sure their vehicles are in good working order. About once a month I receive an email from someone who told me that the vehicle their travel agency arranged for them to go to Everest or Kailash looked like it had been bombed in World War II…bald tires, broken seats, dents, cracked windshields, no spare tire and an engine that looked like it was held together by wires and duct tape! If you choose an ultra-budget travel agency, don’t be surprised if you get a not-so-reliable vehicle that looks like it is 200 years old. Make sure you choose an agency that doesn’t have a long history of vehicle breakdowns. Even the reputable travel agencies that specialize in more budget-friendly tours of Tibet will use reliable vehicles. Just be sure you choose the correct agency.
Is my travel agency locally owned by Tibetans?
This is another question that I am often asked….whether or not a specific travel agency they are planning to use is owned, staffed and managed by local Tibetans. Many travelers are disappointed when they learn that their travel agency is actually based in Shanghai or Beijing, a LONG way from Tibet, and most of the staff are non-Tibetan. While tourism in Tibet is now a major business, relatively few Tibetans are actually benefitting from it. This is because a majority of tourism-related businesses, such as travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, etc., are either owned by the government or by Chinese business people from Chengdu, Shanghai or Beijing. You may disagree with me, which is fine, but I am a strong supporter of practicing responsible tourism by using locally owned businesses, especially when I am in minority areas such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan and Yunnan.
There are excellent Tibetan-owned and staffed travel agencies, hotels, restaurants and shops to use when traveling to Tibet. They might not be the first options on Google (as the government owned travel agencies spend a lot of money to get their Google ranking high), but that doesn’t mean these local Tibetan-owned agencies don’t arrange excellent tours. I encourage you to try and use as many Tibetan-owned businesses as possible to ensure that your tourism money goes directly to the Tibetan people. For assistance on which travel agency to use, feel free to email me at: email@example.com
There are many, many travel agencies to choose from when planning your journey to Tibet. Make sure you choose a good agency that has a good safety record, excellent customer service, uses reliable vehicles and offers competitive prices (remember…a travel agency that offers much cheaper prices than everyone else does so for a reason and that reason could compromise your safety). If you want my recommendation on some good travel agencies to contact, feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
See you in Tibet!