Foreign tourists are understood to have been banned from visiting Tibet, after months of unrest.
French media agency Agence-France Presse yesterday reported that the Tibet China International Tour Service had been ‘asked to stop organising foreign groups to Tibet in late May’.
And tour operator Responsibletravel.com, which organises trips to the Himalayan region, today told TravelMail that it had confirmation from two separate operators that the ban went into effect this morning.
A spokesperson said the operators had not been given a reason or told how long it would last, but that more information was apparently to follow.
People who had already booked holidays were advised to contact their provider to find out next steps.
Responsibletravel.com chief executive and co-founder Justin Francis said: ‘News of a foreign tourism ban to Tibet risks raising concerns of a repeat of 2008, when travellers were twice banned from visiting the destination.
‘Given renewed strains in the political relationship between China and Tibet in recent weeks and marked escalation in protest, this new, seemingly unexplained ban will raise alarms in the back of the minds of travellers and the tourism industry about what is going on on the ground.’
He added: ‘We are calling on the tourism authorities to clarify the motivation behind the ban and continue to work with the tourism industry to keeping travellers and the public updated.’
Jim Eite, head of product at Exodus Travels, commented: ‘Following weeks of chopping and changing regulations and restrictions to visit Tibet, either entering overland from China or Nepal, the local authorities have announced a blanket ban.’
He said it was uncertain how long the restrictions would be in place, commenting: ‘It is impossible to predict if it will be weeks or months. We have cancelled all departures through until the end of August, and will be regularly reviewing our position for departures in September and October.’
According to the Telegraph, now is a popular time to travel to Tibet, with the start of the month-long ‘Saga Dawa’ festival.
News of the ban follows a number of recent cases where Tibetans have set themselves alight in protest at Chinese rule.
At the end of May, two men set themselves ablaze in front of the Jokhang Temple in the centre of the old part of Lhasa.
This was understood to have been the first time protesters had targeted the Tibetan capital.
This was followed soon after by the self-immolation by a mother of three, who died outside the Jonang Dzamthang monastery in Barma Township.
More than 30 people have been known to set themselves alight in protest in the last year.
Stephanie Brigden, director of campaign group Free Tibet, said: ‘It’s essentially standard operating procedure for China to stop foreign tourists travelling whenever there’s unrest.’
TravelMail contacted the Chinese Embassy in London but was waiting for a response.
And an FCO spokeswoman said: ‘We are aware of reports that Tibet has been closed to foreign visitors. Authorities periodically suspend issuing permits for travel to, and within, the Tibet Autonomous Region for foreign nationals at different periods during the year and for different reasons.
‘Travellers to Tibet should check with tour operators or travel agents and monitor the FCO’s travel advice for information about travel to Tibet.’
Tibet came under the control of China in 1951, following military conflict which has prompted unrest since.
When foreigners are permitted to enter, they need to have special visas and join an official tour group.