Is China still allowing foreign tourists to visit Tibet? update 2017

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ September 11th, 2017. Updated on September 17th, 2017. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal » Tibet.
The Potala Palace Lhasa, Tibet

The Potala Palace Lhasa, Tibet

Yes, the Nepal China overland border opens again on September 16th October 29th 2017

One of the most popular questions I get is how to travel from Nepal to Tibet overland. It’s a very easy thing to do as that previous link to my travel guide will show. Likewise from mainland China into Tibet is also very easy. However, due to strict permits and security checks from the Chinese there really is only one option – take a tour.

Since the 2008 uprising in Tibet, China has constantly changed the regulations, document requirements and outright closed off access to Tibet for everyone.

Every year new rumors pop up that China plans to close off Tibet to foreign visitors for the anniversary of the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region (March).

Following the 2015 earthquake the main road on the Tibet side was damaged. Though the reality is that the road was repaired in late 2015. Chinese overland tourists could go back and forward overland for all of 2016 and 2017. Yet, any other nationality was told “No, the road is broken, not possible.”

The reason for this is boils down to profit and to a certain extent, control. In October 2017 the border opens again for all nationalities to do the overland tour. How long will it stay open this time?

I took this to task and visited the main Nepal Tibet overland organizers and here’s what I found out.

(Update:) already within a week of the announcement the Chinese government have postponed handing out Tibet Permits until October 29th 2017 … I’ll update if they change their minds again.

Tibetan village woman

Tibetan village woman

Nepal to Tibet overland tours are regularly closed in March these days

This is due to Chinese regulations. Yes in 2015 the road was damaged due to the earthquake but it’s been open to commercial traffic and Chinese only tours. Actually, Chinese can also travel through this border with no tour – but officially they have to. Why were “non-Chinese” tours not allowed? Because China is promoting its own China based (mainland) to Tibet tours and basically shutting Nepal out.

It’s the long-haul approach to taking complete control of the Nepal Tibet overland market. Freeze the competition out so they go bust or give in. For the most part, it’s worked.

Does that mean Tibet is closed to foreigners? No, Tibet it open to foreigners. The Nepal – Tibet road was regularly closed at the border only. Tours were still being arranged by flying into Lhasa from Kathmandu. However, Lalung-La pass, Shigatse to Gyantse were not on offer in the first half of most tours. You can access these locations from mainland China tours to Tibet only or by flight from Nepal trough Nepali tour operators.

Are there restrictions on nationality to enter Tibet?

The bizarre ban on Indian Nationals to Mount Kailash is no longer in effect. Likewise there is no current ban on nationalities looking to obtain a permit.

The equally bizarre requirement on having to be on a group permit with people of the same nationality is also no longer being enforced (again, this can all change at the whim of the Chinese).

Buddha statue in a Tibetan Monastery

Buddha statue in a Tibetan Monastery

What permits are required to enter Tibet?

I’ve written answers to all permit questions on my guide to traveling to Tibet overland – please read it if you are preparing.

The most important rule is – you don’t need a Chinese visa to enter Tibet from the Nepal side. You need a Tibet permit. From the China side you will need a Chinese visa to enter China, plus a Tibet permit.

Again, please read the guide.

Will China open/close off access to Tibet again?

It’s highly likely they will. Every year since 2008 they’ve closed off overland access to Tibet from late February to late March due to the uprising anniversaries. So I really wouldn’t plan a trip to Tibet then. Try later during September – November if you want to go overland. Otherwise the more expensive option to fly into Tibet from Nepal and then tour overland option is open all year.

This makes planning an overland journey very difficult. Again, this is due to the Chinese authorities. Nepali tour operators are equally frustrated.

“They only tell us verbally a week before any changes. They never do it in writing. And it’s never clear when or why this is happening.”

Generally speaking over the past few years access has not been cut off so frequently as it was before. As a safe bet have a back up plan. Bhutan from Nepal is a popular choice. As is extending a stay in Nepal.

Do confirm with your travel agent that all is okay before you travel. And, keep an eye on the news. If you see something like a demonstration in Tibet or mainland China about Tibet – the officials usually get jumpy and close it off.

Yamdrok Lake in Tibet

Yamdrok Lake in Tibet

Have Tibet overland tours gone up in price?

Again I cover this in my guide.

In 2016 the Chinese government insisted that all the Nepal – Tibet overland vehicles be scrapped and only new Chinese vehicles could be used. A part of the whole, “China takes over this tour sector plan”. This has led to an increase in Tibet tour costs from Nepal.

Purchasing online tours range from the ridiculous to outright obscene in terms of cost. The lowest cost I was quoted for a walk-in Nepal-Tibet 7 night 8 day overland group tour was USD $825. The highest was USD$5,000.

As of October 2017 Nepal to Tibet overland tours are operating again. Most Nepali tour operators are starting off with only once per week tours. Usually departing on a Saturday. I imagine that come December they might close the tours again as per the March uprising paranoia.

There are now only 3 official tour operators in Kathmandu. I list them in my Kathmandu Valley Guidebook and my Nepal guidebook. Including contact information. Please don’t email me for the information. Just buy one of the books :)

More information on traveling Nepal to Tibet Overland

You can get all the information you need, plus itineraries and permit details on my newly updated free guide on traveling to Tibet overland.


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