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Travel firms urged to halt trips to Uyghur region over China rights abuses

Exclusive: Report says optics of western firms organising Xinjiang tours amid ‘crimes against humanity are disastrous’

By Helen Davidson in Taipei

August 30, 2023

Tour guides stand in front of a poster depicting various ethnic groups in Xinjiang. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Uyghur advocates have called on western tourism companies to stop selling package holidays that take visitors through Xinjiang, where human rights abuses by authorities have been called a genocide by some governments.

The request comes as China reopens to foreign visitors after the pandemic, and as its leader, Xi Jinping, calls for more tourism to the region.

A report by the US-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), released on Wednesday, said western tourism to the region risked supporting the normalisation of Chinese government policies that were “intended to destroy the Uyghur identity”.

China’s government has been accused of crimes against humanity and abuses including torture through its policies of mass detention, reeducation, surveillance, population control and oppression of religious and cultural expression in the region. It denies all accusations, saying its policies are aimed at countering extremism and alleviating poverty.

“Nothing under current conditions in East Turkistan aligns with travel company and industry commitments to protection and empowerment of local communities,” the group said, using the traditional name of the region and its title as an independent state between 1944 and 1949.

The UHRP report described tour packages by seven travel companies with offices in western countries. Some were advertising tours available for this year and next, while others had not offered any since before the Covid pandemic, during which China was closed to tourists.

Tourists visit Sayram Lake in Xinjiang, north-western China. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Most of the package holidays – often marketed as Silk Road tours – stopped in the Xinjiang cities of Turpan, Kashgar and Urumqi, and some provided “problematic” experiences including visits to the Xinjiang Regional Museum, which UHRP said contributed to the “state erasure of Uyghur history, culture and identity”, and the Id Kah mosque, which research groups say has been made largely off limits to Uyghurs for prayer.

Some tours, including one by Goway Travel, promised participants would “meet with a local Uyghur family”. The UHRP said there was “no possibility” that Uyghur families could freely decline such a visit. “It is perverse that overseas visitors on organised tours should visit Uyghur homes when Uyghur families cannot host their own family members who live abroad,” it said.

“Further, the presence of family outsiders in Uyghur homes has been a key tactic in the surveillance and exploitation of Uyghurs,” it added, in reference to a 2017 policy of stationing Han Chinese officials in Uyghur homes.

Some tours also offered to visit Aksu, where human rights researchers have identified several detention centres. The author of the report, Henryk Szadziewski, said: “The optics of advertising and organising tours to the Uyghur region amid ongoing crimes against humanity are disastrous.”

Tourism to troubled regions of the world is subject to debate in the sector and among travellers. Some operators and tourists argue that it remains important to support local communities and to provide observation from the outside.

A spokesperson for Intrepid Travel, a global operation that was among the seven examined by UHRP, told the Guardian it had “had to confront several ethical considerations in destinations all over the world over its 34-year history. Intrepid believes that travel can be a force for good and can help make a positive impact on the communities we visit.”

The spokesperson said Intrepid worked with about 8,000 suppliers around the world and had dedicated teams to ensure ethical supply-chain management. The company updated its human rights policy in February, mandating a global assessment every three years. The next will take place in 2024.

Robin Ball, the director of the UK-based company Bamboo Travel, which was also listed by UHRP, said it had sent only a handful of people to Turpan, Urumqi and Kashgar in its 17 years of operation, and none in the past five, but it did offer clients the opportunity to visit the Silk Road region.

He added: “Bamboo Travel does not support the Chinese government in their suppression of the Uyghur people, and we would never knowingly provide services that would harm or endanger the local population in China’s Xinjiang province.

“While this report may advocate avoiding all travel to Xinjiang, this is not an approach we would currently consider. We strongly believe engagement with troubled areas, and interaction with people living there, is a better approach than isolation and cutting the revenue streams that tourism provides to locals.”

A woman at a ‘free Uyghurs’ protest in Berlin, Germany, in 2020. The plight of China’s Uyghur population has attracted global attention. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

The UHRP said the travel industry had “laudable” ethical standards and internal accountability mechanisms but tours to Xinjiang failed to meet them. It said its findings were not about how travel companies were run generally but about whether companies conduct the due diligence required to meet the industry standards.

Shortly after the Guardian’s inquiries Intrepid and Goway withdrew tour packages that went through Xinjiang, and the webpages were removed. “Goway does not endorse any travel experiences that exploit human rights,” said Craig Canvin, the company’s senior vice-president. He said the local tour operator Goway had worked with had “assured us of high ethical standards and positive community impact”.

Canvin added: “We recognise that this is a complex issue and after careful deliberation, Goway has made the decision to discontinue the sale of this programme while we conduct a rigorous audit.”

The UHRP report comes days after Xi made a surprise stop in Urumqi and delivered a speech that called for an increase in domestic and international tourism to Xinjiang. At the same time he urged officials to “more deeply promote the Sinicisation of Islam and effectively control illegal religious activities”.

Rights groups have found that many of the policies targeting “illegal religious activities” have persecuted people for benign acts of observance, including studying the Qur’an and having a beard.

The UHRP report said visitors to Xinjiang were seeing only a Uyghur identity “permitted by the Chinese state”. It added: “What the Chinese state has left of public expressions of Uyghur identity has remained for commodification and exploitation, not only by visitors on tours from overseas but also domestic tourists.”


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