Announced earlier this year, the new St. Regis Lhasa, which has the distinction of being Tibet's first luxury hotel, has opened its doors. Though the project has garnered some controversy, St. Regis will be the first of several international luxury hotel chains to set up shop in Lhasa in an attempt to tap the growing number of Chinese tourists pouring into the region from the country's wealthier east coast. Earlier this year, a ground-breaking ceremony was held on the site of the InterContinental Lhasa (set to open in 2012), Shangri-La also plans to open its own high-end hotels in the Tibetan capital by 2012. Additionally, a handful of boutique hotels are also in the works in Lhasa and surrounding areas.
According to Xinhua, at the opening of the 32,000 square meter St. Regis Lhasa, representatives of owner Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Tibet tourism officials lauded the new resort's small carbon footprint and green construction:
"By utilizing solar energy and geothermal energy, the St. Regis Lhasa Resort can save on diesel energy consumption every year by 93,000 kg," said Phil McAveety, chief brand official of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. which owns the hotel.
"The opening of St. Regis ends Tibet's history of no luxury hotels. Shangri-La Hotel and InterContinental Hotel will be built in Lhasa in 2010. High-end hotels will help boost Tibet's tourism," said Wang Songping, deputy chief of the region's Tourism Administration.
While the construction of three high-end hotels isn't enough to qualify as a "boom," it reflects the changing dynamics of the tourism industry in Tibet that are driven primarily by Chinese -- rather than foreign -- tourists. Much of this simply comes down to numbers, rather than indicators of demand. In the first three quarters of this year, tourist arrivals in Tibet have hit 5.8 million, a rise of 22.6% over the same period last year, and since the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway in 2006 an ever-increasing proportion of these tourists have been Chinese from other provinces. To put these figures in perspective, in the first three quarters of this year, 9.8 million tourists from mainland China visited Macau. Despite the increasing number of tourists from eastern and central China visiting Tibet, statistics remain low relative to other popular destinations.
Though high-end construction projects in Tibet -- which remains far behind east China in terms of economic development and per-capita income -- are, and will likely remain, controversial, the thinking of the Tibet tourism authorities and hotel chains is simple: the number of tourists is growing, and more of these tourists can afford expensive hotel rooms.