Though foreigners are now banned from traveling to the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Chinese name for Central Tibet, the Himalayan hinterland has experienced a boom in tourism thanks to Chinese visitors.
Last week, several travel agencies reported that Tibet was once-again closed to foreign tourists. The agencies claimed the ban, imposed by the Chinese National Tourist Office (CNTO), would last at least through June, and perhaps continue indefinitely.
The latest we've heard is that it will last until November, said Marilyn Downing Staff, founder and president of Asia Transpacific Journeys.
Downing Staff said she's had to re-route several travelers to other parts of China that still have a Tibetan flavor.
Now, of course, is the high season and it's unfortunate on so many fronts, she added.
The latest ban comes amid increasing concerns over self-immolations. At least 38 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in Tibetan regions since 2009 in protest of Chinese rule. In late May, two Tibetans performed the act in front of the Jokhang, the holiest temple of Tibetan Buddhism in the center of Lhasa. It was the first recorded attempt in Lhasa, the capital and hub of regional tourism.
Chinese authorities claim that the immolations are orchestrated from the outside and incite separatism. Followers of spiritual leader Dalai Lama, based in northern India, say protesters are driven to these extreme measures because they cannot tolerate Beijing's sanitization of local religion and culture.
The government has yet to publicly acknowledge the ban and state media claims that international visitors continue to visit Tibet while the Tibet Tourism Bureau agrees that foreign tourists are still welcome. Reports from Lhasa and travel agencies throughout China, however, tell a different story.
Bans on travel in Tibet are typically delivered orally to tourism industry leaders to avoided issuing potentially embarrassing documents.
We were told by company management not to receive foreign tourists since June 1, no matter whether they are coming individually or in groups, a man surnamed Liu who works at the China International Travel Service in Lhasa, told the AP.
Foreigners were forbidden in Tibet from late February to early April during the anniversary of large protests against Chinese rule.
The latest ban comes as Tibetans prepare for the month-long festival of Saga Dawa, marking three important events in Buddha's life: his birth, nirvana, and parinirvana (death). This year, the festivities began on June 4, the anniversary of the Chinese government crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests. The Saga Dawa festivities typically draw thousands of tourists and fall during the region's peak tourism season.
China enforced a similar ban on foreigners last year around the same time and has done so periodically during religious holidays or times of unrest.
Even in normal times, all foreign tourists in Tibet are closely monitored by the government and must apply for a special visa. Any foreign tour operator traveling through the region must first make arrangements through a Chinese firm and be accompanied by a government-appointed guide.
But the government has little impetus to make things easier for foreigners, who now make up a fraction of overall visits. Tibet has seen a boom in domestic tourists who are allowed to roam the region freely even during times of unrest.
Tibet tourism is now driven by the Chinese, so the few westerners that turn up in Tibet are not exactly driving the economy, Downing Staff said.
According to a report from the official Xinhua News Agency, foreigners accounted for just 2 percent of the 1.45 million visitors to Tibet in the first five months of 2012.
The Chinese government has a tourism policy in place to attract travelers that are less likely to sympathize with anti-Beijing sentiment. Many see this as an attempt to win over the Tibetan population by developing the region's economy while keeping reports of unrest muted.
The rise in domestic visitors in recent years spurs from an increase in direct flights, new high speed train services from Beijing and Shanghai to Lhasa, and steep discounts following the violent 2008 riots. Hotels catering to their needs in Lhasa are booming as urbanites escape Chinese metropolises for a vacation in the pristine, snowcapped plateau.