China officially opened the world’s highest-altitude civilian airport Monday in a remote Tibetan-populated prefecture in southwestern Sichuan province. The Garzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture’s tourism bureau said the new 1.58 billion yuan ($258 million) airport would dramatically reduce the travel time from the provincial capital of Chengdu from two days by bus to just over an hour by plane.
At 4,411 meters (14,472 feet) above sea level, the new Daocheng Yading Airport in Garzi overtook Qamdo Bamda Airport in Tibet, which sits at 4,334 meters (14,219 feet), to become the world’s highest for civilian aircraft. It opened Monday with daily flights between Daocheng and Chengdu.
Chinese state media reported that the airport would offer routes connecting Daocheng with Chongqing Municipality, a southwest Chinese business hub, and Maerkang County, capital of Sichuan's Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, beginning in October. The government expects to roll out an expanded network of cities in 2014, including Guangzhou, Shanghai and Xi’an.
China hopes the new airport can promote tourism at the Yading Nature Reserve in the eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, Xinhua News Agency reported. The state news agency called Yading “the last Shangri-La” and “the last pure land on the blue planet.”
Daocheng Yading Airport took two years to complete, was designed to handle 280,000 passengers a year, and becomes the sixth airport in China’s Himalayan region. The facility is part of China’s greater multibillion-dollar plan to open up its “wild west” to the economic benefits of tourism.
The Chinese government hopes to attract 15 million tourists and raise up to 2 billion yuan ($327 million) in tourism revenue in Tibetan regions by 2015. It claims new airports and development projects will increase employment opportunities for ethnic Tibetans and bring prosperity into one of China’s poorest areas.
Yet, many residents of Garzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (and elsewhere along the Tibetan Plateau) chafe at Chinese political control. In fact, the region has been in the news over the past several years not for its crisp air and soaring vistas, but as the scene of numerous self-immolation protests against Chinese rule. As such, it remains under tight security and is sporadically closed to foreign visitors.
With initial one-way tickets to Chengdu starting at 1,600 yuan ($260), the world’s highest airport is likely to be used almost exclusively by wealthy Chinese tourists, rather than the local population. Critics argue that the facility was also built with the dual purpose of easing access for military troops, who are often called upon in times of unrest.
“This is no holiday destination,” Alistair Currie, spokesman for the campaign group Free Tibet, told the Telegraph when news of the new airport surfaced this summer. “What China does in Tibet, it does for China, not Tibet.
“More than 95 percent of visitors to Tibet are Chinese, and business interests are dominated by Chinese immigrants or existing Chinese companies. The economic benefits of these kinds of developments almost always flow out of Tibet,” Currie added. “For China, Tibetan culture and landscape is a resource to be exploited.”
Further infrastructure projects along the Tibetan Plateau include a seventh airport, a Swiss-style tourism town and a $4.7 billion theme park.
Mark Johanson is the travel editor at the International Business Times. He has traveled to and written about more than 30 nations and territories on every continent except...