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China unleashes tourism in latest invasion of Tibet

Wealthy tourists will soon be able to gaze out at the Roof of the World as a smartly dressed waiter expertly pours a glass of imported wine in the intimate setting of the Decanter bar of Tibet's first luxury hotel.

For centuries an isolated, mystical enclave ruled by Tibetan Buddhist monks, Lhasa – the administrative centre of the Tibet Autonomous Region – has changed profoundly since Chinese troops entered in 1950 and imposed the dominant Han Chinese culture on the ancient territory.

The introduction in recent years of regular flights, as well as the building of a high-tech train service from central Qinghai province to Tibet – the first rail link between the area and the rest of China – has seen tourists arrive in droves to the city where, historically, neither foreigners nor Chinese dared enter.

The surge of tourists to the Himalayan region has seen visitor numbers jump during the first nine months of 2010 to 5.8 million, up 23 per cent on the same period a year earlier.

And newly wealthy Chinese want luxury accommodation. "The St Regis Lhasa Resort offers refined luxury and superlative service in a storied city," gushes the breathless blurb on the St Regis website. "Discover Potala Palace and Norbulingka, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Jokhang Temple, all minutes from our resort."

A room for the night at Lhasa's newest place to stay will set you back about £200. The Intercontinental and Shangri-La hotel groups are also about to unveil high-end luxury hotels in coming months.

But the opening up of the region has not been seamless. In March 2008, violent protests focused on Han Chinese settlers in the region left 22 dead, according to government figures, although Tibetan rights groups say the figure was far higher. Officials blamed protest activity across the plateau on separatists loyal to the Dalai Lama.

There is a heavy police presence on the streets of Lhasa and hardline measures have been put in place to maintain religious and political stability.

Lhasa used to be one of the most remote and inaccessible places in the world, but Beijing has been keen to promote the city as a tourist destination.

"The opening of St Regis ends Tibet's history of no luxury hotels. High-end hotels will help boost Tibet's tourism," Wang Songping, deputy chief of the Tibetan Tourism Administration, told the Xinhua news agency.

Beijing says the People's Liberation Army rescued Tibetans from a feudal system run by Buddhist monks and insists the remote Himalayan territory has been part of Chinese territory for centuries.

It accuses the Dalai Lama, who left Tibet after a failed uprising in 1959 and has not returned since, of being a dangerous "splittist," agitating for independence. The Chinese government says it is bringing prosperity to a traditionally impoverished area. It has started a huge building programme and says it has done much to lift the enclave out of isolation.

Tibetan activists have warned that tourism and migration by Han Chinese could swamp Tibet's distinctive culture, with Tibetan people not receiving their fair share of new jobs and income.

But the hotel is less concerned with the politics and more interested in promoting its image as a go-to destination.

"Four meeting rooms surpass your expectations, while Iridium, the Spa, brings a uniquely Tibetan flavour to a soothing array of indulgent treatments," promises the brochure.

Overseas groups who demand Tibet's autonomy say the opening up of the region could lead to an influx of ethnic Han Chinese migrants who will eventually displace Tibetans in their own homeland.

For Chinese tourists, Tibet has a spiritual dimension which people feel is missing from the Han areas of China and the cities on the eastern seaboard. Chinese tourists don Tibetan cowboy hats and robes and seek to share in the spirituality that the mystical Tibetans are supposed to exude.

The hotel features 162 guest rooms and villas with plasma TV, broadband and spacious marble bathrooms.

"Our St Regis Butler will address your every request for an unforgettable stay," the hotel promises.