Tibetan authorities, jittery about possible protests marring the Mount Everest leg of the Olympic torch relay, have abruptly reversed a decision to reopen the region to foreign tourists in May.
Tour operators said Thursday they had received verbal notices this week from the Tibetan Tourism Bureau telling them to stop arranging trips for foreigners. They said the bureau cited the need to secure safe passage for the torch relay to the summit of Everest, as well as continuing safety concerns in Lhasa.
Tourism authorities had announced last week that foreign tour groups would be allowed into Tibet on May 1, the start of a three-day national holiday. Permits needed for foreigners to visit the Himalayan region have not been issued since deadly anti-government riots broke out in the capital of Lhasa in mid-March.
"We received the emergency notice from the tourism bureau that, considering the safety of the torch, which will go to Mount Everest in May, agencies are not allowed to receive tourist groups and foreign tourists," said an employee at the Tibet China Youth Travel Service in Lhasa, who identified himself by his surname Dong.
Dong said the government's decision will hurt Tibet's expanding tourism industry, which accounts for a major portion of the local economy. Last May, his company arranged trips for 3,000 to 4,000 foreign tourists.
"This decision will affect our business, even the Chinese tourism market, a lot," he said.
The reversal comes in the wake of major demonstrations this week in San Francisco, London and Paris, all stops on the Olympic torch relay's grandiose trek around the world. Thousands of raucous protesters angry at China's human rights record, its harsh rule in Tibet and its friendly ties with Sudan scuffled with police and attempted to block the torch's passage.
A man who answered the phone at the Tibetan Tourism Bureau confirmed that changes have been made to the original decision to reopen Tibet on May 1. He refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday that the Tibetan government is making efforts to "restore the situation and to bring back the law and order." Yu added that "special measures are taken for special circumstances."
The torch relay, the longest in Olympic history, was aimed at showcasing China's rising economic and political power. Instead, protesters along its route have used the spectacle to criticize Chinese leaders for their March crackdown on massive anti-government demonstrations in Tibet and surrounding provinces. Those protests have been the biggest challenge to Chinese rule in nearly two decades.
Rallies have also been held elsewhere to protest the crackdown. On Thursday, thousands of Tibetans carried 154 shrouded effigies in India's capital, New Delhi, representing compatriots they believed were killed in the crackdown on anti-China protests in Tibet. Chinese authorities say 22 people died in the riots.
In a bid to prevent possible disruptions, China earlier this year banned mountaineering groups from getting permits to climb its side of Everest between March and June. It also persuaded Nepal to enact a similar ban on the other side of the mountain.
The torch is scheduled to return to mainland China at the beginning of May and continue through dozens of Chinese cities, including Lhasa, in mid June. A side relay will take a second torch up Mount Everest in early May.
Tibet's governor Champa Phuntsok said earlier this week he had "no doubt" that Tibetan independence activists would seek to "create trouble" during the Tibet leg of the Olympic relay. China has repeated blamed the Dalai Lama and his supporters for fomenting the unrest, saying they want to publicize Tibet's cause and undermine the Olympics.
On Thursday, the exiled Tibetan leader said he supports China's hosting of the Summer Games, but insisted nobody had the right to tell protesters demanding freedom for Tibet "to shut up."
"We are not anti-Chinese. Right from the beginning, we supported the Olympic Games," the Dalai Lama said during a stopover in Tokyo on his way to the U.S.
However, he said that demonstrators have the right to their opinions, as long as it is nonviolent
"Nobody has the right to tell them to shut up. One of the problems in Tibet is that there is no freedom of speech," he said.
The United States, along with other Western nations, has urged Chinese leaders to begin a dialogue with the Tibetan leader in hopes of resolving tensions.
China's long-standing position has been that it would engage in dialogue only if the Dalai Lama gave up what it calls aspirations for Tibetan independence, stopped "splittist activities," and halted actions to undermine the Beijing Olympics. The Dalai Lama denies pursuing any of those aims.
On Thursday, the European Parliament urged European Union governments to consider a boycott of the Olympic opening ceremony if China does not resume talks with the Dalai Lama. Several world leaders, including Britain's Gordon Brown and Germany's Angela Merkel, have already said they will not attend.
Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in Beijing for talks on trade, told Premier Wen Jiabao Thursday that he hopes China can resolve its "significant human rights problems" in Tibet but rejected the idea of boycotting the Beijing Olympics as "ineffective."
Rudd was the second visiting world leader this week to urge China to engage critics and explore the underlying causes for the anti-government rioting that erupted last month across Tibetan-inhabited regions of western China.
"The position of the Australian government is that there are significant human rights problems in Tibet which require a solution" through nonviolent approaches and dialogue, said Rudd, who has not said whether or not he planned to attend the opening ceremony.