LHASA, CHINA - THE steady flow of tourists to Lhasa has slowed to a trickle three months after anti-Chinese riots in the Tibetan capital, leaving hotels almost empty and shops struggling to make ends meet.
As hand-picked spectators cheered the Olympic flame through the city in a seemingly trouble-free and tightly-controlled torch relay on Saturday, local businesses complained of slow trade since the riots in March.
'There are not many customers at the moment, mostly local people and virtually no tourists,' an employee at the Tibet International Grand Hotel told AFP.
'All the sites have been reopened, it's just that no one is coming. For business to get better, I think we must wait until social stability is totally back to normal.'
Beijing barred all tourists from going to Tibet after a massive crackdown on violence that erupted in Lhasa on March 14, and then spread to other areas of western China with Tibetan populations.
Chinese tour groups have now been allowed back but foreign visitors are still banned, although Tibet's vice chairman has said the Himalayan region will soon open up to them.
'I think the day when Tibet fully opens up to tourism is not far away,' the Xinhua news agency quoted Palma Trily as saying.
Exiled Tibetan leaders say 203 people died in a clampdown on riots that began four days after monks led peaceful protests in Lhasa to mark a 1959 uprising.
China has reported killing one Tibetan 'insurgent' and says 'rioters' were responsible for 21 deaths.
The ban on tourism has caused difficulties for many businesses in Lhasa, despite the government allowing tour groups from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan back in from the beginning of May.
The Lhasa Hotel, one of the city's top establishments, temporarily laid off more than three-quarters of its staff after the riots, the state-run Tibet Daily said.
Revenue from tourism contributed more than 14 percent of Tibet's gross domestic product in 2007, and at 668 million dollars was up 75 percent year-on-year, official figures show.
The head of the regional tourism administration, Mr Wang Songping, predicted confidently early this year that visitors to Tibet would hit five million in 2008, with revenues soaring by 24 per cent.
But since the end of April, when mainland Chinese were allowed back in, just 120,000 people have visited the Himalayan region.
An employee at one of the shops in front of the Jokhang Temple - the first Buddhist temple in Tibet and a focal point for the unrest - said business was now much worse than before the riots.
'Before the violence, you would have seen a crowd of tourists around here, but now there are just a few, and mostly locals,' he said.
Businesses in other parts of China were also affected as tour operators that focus on the popular Himalayan region and surrounding areas were largely unable to organise trips there.
Mr Robin Irvine, operations manager at Electric Pagoda, a tour operator in China that organises trips to Tibet, said he doubted the Himalayan region would open to foreign tourists before the Paralympic Games in September.
'While the world's television is on China during the Olympics, my guess is it wouldn't make sense to let any foreigners in,' he said.
Mr Irvine said the closure of Tibet and other areas since the riots had hit the company financially, compounded by the earthquake that hit southwest Sichuan province on May 12 and killed nearly 70,000 people.
'We're making ends meet, but this was the time when we wanted to make hay of it because this was a big year with the Olympics. Financially it's been tough but hopefully it will be better next year.' -- AFP