Tibet may be accessible to more people than ever before, but all non-Chinese nationals still require a special permit to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Chinese government imposed even tighter controls on tourism to Tibet before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Tibet’s once popular backpacker tours are now a thing of the past, and individual travel permits are now nearly impossible to obtain for foreign tourists. Presently all foreign visitors are now required to join a tour for the duration of their stay, with permits for groups of five or more people easier to get than individual travel permits.
Any foreign tourists to Tibet must be prepared to fill out plenty of paperwork to obtain a basic Tibet Tourism Bureau permit. These permits are issued only by Chinese travel agencies or Kathmandu’s Chinese embassy. Visitors who apply for Tibet Tourism Bureau permits in Kathmandu must provide proof that they have purchased a package tour.
Package tours do not come cheap, but their members pay less for their Tibet Tourism Bureau permits than those who purchase permits independently in conjunction with train or airplane tickets. The Tourism Bureau permit is a physical document which is always checked during all rail and other land crossings into Tibet, but can simply show up as an extra note on a ticket record for those entering by air.
In addition to the Tourism Bureau permit, many regions also require visitors to have an additional Aliens’ Travel Permit, which can be issued at the Public Security Bureau in most major Tibetan communities.
The list of Tibetan regions requiring this extra permit is constantly changing, so asking around is the best way to get the most recently updated list. Aliens’ Travel Permits are supposedly easier to obtain in the smaller communities of Ali and Xigatse than in Lhasa. Access to some of Tibet’s most remote areas requires a military permit which can only be obtained in Lhasa and only for appropriate reasons.
Although Chinese police regularly stop or question foreign visitors, they are usually friendly or uninterested in tourists’ travel plans.
Health and Safety
Altitude sickness is the greatest health threat for any visitor to Tibet, especially those arriving directly from much lower altitudes or those suffering from heart conditions, breathing problems, or other serious medical issues.
However, even most perfectly healthy individuals still suffer some degree of altitude sickness during their first few days in Tibet. Common altitude sickness symptoms include lethargy, dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Altitude sickness sufferers also have difficulty sleeping, eating, and breathing, especially at night. Fortunately, these symptoms gradually subside as visitors become acclimatized to the high altitude.
Ample food, water, and warm clothing are musts for any excursion into the region’s isolated rural regions. Other health risks here include sunburn in the high mountains and attacks from the dogs who roam unattended throughout Tibet’s cities and which rural villagers keep to guard their homes.
Although all Chinese travel agencies must now supply their clients with Travel Agencies’ Liability Insurance, this only covers accidents which take place during activities the travel agent organizes directly. Therefore, all foreign visitors are strongly advised to purchase their own travel insurance prior to arriving in Tibet to avoid any potentially high medical bills.