Tibet aims to attract high-end travelers

In a small and quiet alley near the Jokhang Temple at the heart of Lhasa, sits the former residence of Ling Rinpoche, senior tutor to the 13th Dalai Lama. Now, the over-300-year-old residence has been turned into a boutique hotel, to meet the ever increasing demand of luxury travelers to Tibet.

"The reason why we are here is the Tibetan culture," says Kerstin Odnun, a German tourist who is staying at the Lingtsang Boutique Hotel. Odnun says she enjoys the Tibetan ambience and originality of the hotel.

A devoted Buddhist believer, Lobsang Tashi, the hotel owner, says he got the idea of protecting the old architecture by running a boutique hotel after conducting a case study into how Europeans like to travel. "Before this place was a home stay and it wasn't very well protected," he says. "With a boutique hotel, we have only nine rooms and the guests who come here respect the culture and take good care of the rooms."

Tashi spent more than one year renovating and restoring the sacred residence. He hired painters, sculptors and carpenters from monasteries to decorate the hotel to ensure the religious decorations of the hotel were spot on.

"The religion here is very present," says Odnun. "People here are very religious." Odnun did not want a backpacker-place to stay, especially considering she was traveling with her father.

Tourism, the pillar industry of Tibet, is booming with the help of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which opened in 2006, running south from Qinghai Province to Lhasa. Since then, the number of visitors to Tibet more than doubled to a record 4 million in 2007, with a total revenue of 4.85 billion yuan (718 million U.S dollars) that year, accounting for 14.2 percent of the autonomous region's GDP. About 90 percent of the tourists that year were domestic travelers.

However, tourism almost came to a standstill after the 2008 riots in the region's capital Lhasa, which led to the death of at least 18 civilians and one policeman, with businesses looted and residences, shops and vehicles torched. The region re-opened to domestic and foreign tour groups soon after the riots. But tourism industry was hit severely, with tourists numbers falling back to the days before the Qinghai-Tibet railway opened with a total of 2.28 million in 2008.

With strong government support and promotion campaigns, tourism in Tibet has rebounded. According to the Tibet Autonomous Regional Tourism Bureau, Tibet attracted more than 5.5 million tourists in 2009 and 6.8 million in 2010, with respective annual revenues of 5.2 billion yuan (764 million U.S. dollars) and more than 7 billion yuan.

In its 12th Five-year Plan, Tibet aims to attract 15 million visitors each year by 2015, with the annual tourist revenue expected to hit 15 billion yuan in the next five years.

Tibet will make tourism one of its pillar industries and will build itself into a world-class tourist resort, says Yu Yungui, party chief of the Tibet tourism bureau.


According to the plan, Tibet will develop itself into a tourist destination characterized by world-class plateau ecology and Tibetan culture and lay a sound foundation for becoming a major global tourist destination.

With this goal in mind, the St. Regis Lhasa Resort, Tibet's first luxury hotel, opened its doors to high-end travelers last November.

The beauty and mystery of Tibet attracts millions of travelers here, says Phil McAveety, chief brand official of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. which owns St. Regis Lhasa. "But never before has there been an opportunity to have a luxury experience in Lhasa."

The hotel aims to attract the high-end travelers by offering high-standard service and design.

"High-end hotels will help boost Tibet's tourism," said Wang Songping, deputy chief of the region's tourism bureau.

The St. Regis Lhasa Resort, located 3,680 meters above sea level, has 162 rooms and an exclusive Iridium spa. The presidential suite at the resort costs 50,000 yuan per night. The double room costs 2,250 yuan during the winter season and rises to 3,600 yuan during the summer tourism season.

"There is strong demand for luxury accommodation and we see a lot of potential," says Jean-Michel Kok, director of rooms, St. Regis Lhasa,

Other luxury hotel brands also have plans to open high-end hotels in Lhasa. Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts will open a 350-room luxury hotel in 2012 and InterContinental plans to open a high-end hotel with 2,000 rooms in three years.

The target customers of St. Regis Lhasa are not only the high-end travelers from the west to Tibet, says Jean-Michel Kok. "Those from the Chinese mainland, who have strong consumer purchasing power and focus on premium leisure, are the more important customers luxury hotels such as St. Regis want to attract."