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Catering to the cadres in the land of the lamas


The rooms in Lhasa bear the unmistakable Holiday Inn template, known to travelers from Kansas to Kuala Lumpur. But most other signs of the international hotel chain's 10-year presence in Tibet are gone. Holiday Inn may be expanding at a healthy pace across China, but its remote outpost on the Roof of the World succumbed last year to the treacherous political climate.

The London-based Free Tibet Society led a worldwide boycott against the chain last year, accusing its management of cooperating with Tibet's rulers in Beijing. Bonnie Chu, a spokesperson for the hotel chain's owners, Bass Hotels and Resorts, insists that the departure was just an effort to "strengthen the Holiday Inn brand." Alison Reynolds of Free Tibet believes the bad publicity wrought by the boycott made an impact, "I find it hard to believe it wasn't a consideration," she says.

Human rights groups were nowhere to be seen 10 years ago, when the hotel first opened its doors. Tibet is a "charming place" offered a travel writer in a California newspaper in 1987, but it's restaurants "lack atmosphere" and "it could use a few more hotels." Holiday Inn struck a deal with the government travel agency, CYTS, to take over an unfinished building on the capital's west side, and brought luxuries--like reliable phone lines and satellite TVs--that were practically unknown to the impoverished Himalayan region.

The opening was a hit. A public-relations picnic was held at the poolside. Tibetan teenagers were invited to party at its glitzy disco. Gerald Hatherly, a travel agent at Abercrombie & Kent which places upmarket tourists at the hotel every year, says he has never heard a complaint about its amenities: "It was and continues to be the best available hotel property in Lhasa." But, he adds, "I don't think it ever made money."

Here's one reason why: Clashes erupted between Chinese soldiers and Tibetans only two months after the hotel opened. Many prospective tourists stayed away. Following pro-independence protests in 1989, martial law was imposed and access to Tibet restricted. Tourists still apply for permits to obtain entry, and "it's not a problem as long as you go through professional agents that use official channels," says Hatherly. But not too many tourists seem prepared to make the effort. And adventurous backpackers seeking an exotic Asian experience tend to stay away from Western-style hotels.

In short order, Holiday Inn became known as a resting spot for Communist Party cadres visiting the region. Karaoke bars and Chinese restaurants sprang up in its neighborhood, the "Han side of town," as locals call it. These days, the hotel is run solely by CYTS. Rooms go at negotiable rates [Tel: 891-683-2221]. A manager says the clientele is largely Chinese.

But some things haven't changed. A sign nearby reads: "Lhasa Hotel," in bold Tibetan, English and Chinese script. There's an English-language postscript: "Former Holiday Inn."


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Holiday Inn may be expanding at a healthy pace across China, but its remote outpost on the Roof of the World succumbed last year to the treacherous political climate

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