China said Monday it plans to reopen Tibet to foreign tourists next week in a sign of Beijing's growing confidence after several sensitive anniversaries passed without any apparent major disturbances.
Tibetan areas that were sealed-off to foreign visitors last year following anti-government protests and a massive security clampdown will reopen on April 5, said a spokesman for the Tibetan regional government's tourism administration.
"We've limited numbers for safety reasons and from April 5 we will start to receive foreign tourists as usual. Right now everything is safe in Tibet, there's no problem," said the spokesman, who gave only his surname, Liao.
Word of the reopening was first released by the official Xinhua News Agency on Sunday.
China requires foreigners to obtain special permission to visit Tibet and routinely bars them from all ethnically Tibetan areas of the country during sensitive periods to keep news of unrest from leaking out.
China claims Tibet as part of its territory, but many Tibetans have chafed under rule by Beijing, which grew steadily more invasive after communist troops entered the region in 1950.
Tibet and vast swaths of Tibetan-inhabited parts of western China were closed to virtually all foreigners following the outbreak of the biggest anti-Beijing demonstrations last March. China responded to the protests by flooding Tibetan areas with troops and launching major political indoctrination campaigns in Buddhist monasteries that are a hotbed of anti-government sentiment.
Domestic visitors were also barred from Tibet for more than a month and their numbers have yet to reach levels before the protest.
Total numbers of visitors fell by nearly half in the first nine months of last year, according to Xinhua, while tourism revenues plunged 54 percent to 1.8 billion yuan ($264 million). The launch of the first luxury train service from Beijing to Tibet has been postponed from April until next spring.
A report by a panel of government-backed Tibet experts, cited by Xinhua Monday, blamed the tourism downturn on the protest without mentioning security measures taken or the ban on foreign visitors.
The protests exerted a "detrimental effect on the previously booming development of tourism," the report said, according to Xinhua.
Meanwhile, the European Union's top diplomat called Monday for new talks between Beijing and representatives of the Dalai Lama.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner said she discussed the thorny issue Sunday with Vice President Li Keqiang and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
She said the officials' tone was less angry than in the past, but that they did not indicate any change in Beijing's hard-line attitude toward contact with the exiled Buddhist leader.
"We feel negotiations are the only way forward. Beijing may not like every position that the Dalai Lama's side has taken, but at least they should talk about those topics," said Ferrero-Waldner, who holds the title of EU external relations commissioner.
Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking independence for Tibet and objects furiously when foreign leaders hold meetings with him. Last year, China canceled a major summit with the EU after a private meeting between the Dalai Lama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy — who at the time held the grouping's rotating presidency.