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Stop tourism of Xinjiang, Uyghur advocacy group says

Xinjiang forced labor (US Dept of Labor/Released)
September 10, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Western travel agencies must stop offering tours of China’s far western Xinjiang region because they are implicitly supporting Beijing’s repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs who live there, a new report by a Uyghur advocacy group says.

“Travel companies have no business in running tours to sites of ongoing atrocities,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, or UHRP, in a statement issued Aug. 30, the day the report was released. 

“Nobody would have dreamed of taking tourists into Rwanda, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or Darfur in the midst of the horrors in these places,” he said. “The same should apply to East Turkistan,” he said, using Uyghurs’ preferred name for Xinjiang, which means “New Territory” in Mandarin.

Human rights organizations, the U.S. government and several Western parliaments have declared the Chinese government’s actions toward the Uyghurs as genocide or crimes against humanity. A 2022 report issued by the U.N.’s human rights office said the abuses may constitute crimes against humanity.

The actions include heavy surveillance, mass detentions of an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in camps and prisons, torture, forced sterilizations of women, forced labor, repression of religious belief and expression, and destruction of cultural heritage.

China has denied accusations of rights abuse in Xinjiang. There was no immediate response from the government about the report.

‘Genocide Tours’

The report titled “Genocide Tours: International Travel Companies in East Turkistan,” identifies seven Western travel companies with tour itineraries that include stops in Urumqi, Turpan and Kashgar. The tours also include visits to Uyghur homes, which families are not in a position to refuse, given an environment of state control, the report says.

The travel companies are based in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Among the firms identified are Abercrombie & Kent, Bamboo Travel, Geographical Expeditions, Goway Travel, Intrepid Travel, Laurus Travel and Wild Frontiers, which is also doing business under the name Myths and Mountains. 

In early August, the UHRP emailed the companies to inform them about the report.

Geographic Expeditions acknowledged receipt of the group’s email, while Intrepid Travel said it canceled tours to Xinjiang, the UHRP said.

On Tuesday, Wild Frontiers told RFA that its marketing department responded to the report on X, formerly known as Twitter, but no such tweets were found on its accounts.

Wild Frontiers told Voice of America that it has not operated tours to Xinjiang since 2019 and that it would conduct an investigation into its trips to the region to ensure that potential future visits are “done as sensitively as possible.” According to the UHRP, the company said it does not support China’s actions in Xinjiang but believes that travel can have a positive impact on local communities.

Bamboo Travel told VOA it does not support China’s suppression of the Uyghurs and has not operated tours in Xinjiang in five years.

Goway said it would stop offering tours that include Xinjiang, following an article about the report that appeared in the Guardian. The company had no comment about the report.

Though the tour companies see their actions as neutral, they are contributing to China’s narrative that life is normal in the region and minimizing concerns over genocide, said Julie Millsap, UHRP’s government relations manager.

Because Chinese authorities prevent Uyghurs in Xinjiang from freely engaging with foreign tourists, visitors’ impressions are being “filtered through the lens that the Chinese government allows them to see and is helping to portray life as normal, when in reality it is still not,” Millsap told RFA. 

In the report, the UHRP makes seven recommendations to travel companies and their respective trade associations, calling for an end to Xinjiang tours and for companies to meet internal, industry, and international environmental, social and governance standards.

The group also called for the companies to commit to international human rights standards for the travel industry embodied in the Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics and to adhere to its articles through an annual review of operations.