Restricted Travel Regions – Tibet & Bhutan

Tibet

In order to travel to Tibet, you will need 2 things:

  • a valid Chinese visa
  • a valid tourist visa to Tibet

Himalayas and TibetAirTreks cannot book plane tickets into or out of Lhasa—you have to arrange them through a travel agency that specializes in tours to Tibet. Because the Chinese government restricts travel to Tibet, they only allow certain government-approved agencies to arrange travel to that region. A tourist permit for Tibet MUST be arranged in conjunction with a tour.

Visas to China can be obtained most easily in the USA, but also in other countries.  (At one point it was easy to get visas for China in Hong Kong but this is no longer true.) Please consult your visa provider for more info on Chinese visas.

Tibet permits are issued only in conjunction with prepaid tour arrangements for the duration of your stay in Tibet, NOT for independent travelers.

The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu will not allow independent travel into Tibet. The Embassy has passed a regulation stating that for a tourist to obtain a visa and Tibet permit you must be part of a group tour with a minimum of 5 people.  The tour as a whole in Tibet will be done in a group; that means there may be other people also joining the tour.

Tourists, even if they have a valid China visa and Tibet permit, are not allowed to travel overland in or out of Tibet except by air (from Chengdu year-round, or seasonally from Beijing or Kathmandu) or by road from and to Nepal only with authorized tour companies, not by public bus. You can also travel by train from Beijing to Lhasa via the Qinghai-Tibet railway (incidentally, the world’s highest railway completed in July 2006. The train pumps oxygen inside compartments to help passengers deal with the high elevation!).

Flights between Kathmandu and Lhasa generally operate only seasonally (not in the winter), and are prone to cancellations and schedule changes, depending on weather and political conditions in both Nepal and Tibet.  Tickets for these flights can only be purchased in Kathmandu or Lhasa (or through a tour operator with a local representative in Kathmandu or Lhasa, through whom you are also booking your Tibet tour).  You must have your China visa and Tibet permit before you can make reservations on these flights.

The road between Lhasa and Kathmandu, the “Friendship Highway”, is generally passable year-round by four-wheel-drive vehicles, but is subject to landslides and washouts, especially during the summer monsoon rains. Travelers on overland jeep tours should be prepared for delays of up to several days due to road closures.  You may have to walk and carry your belongings across washed-out sections of road.

In general, it is quicker, easier, and cheaper (although not quick, easy, nor cheap) to arrange to join a tour into Tibet locally on short notice from China proper (typically from Chengdu, although it’s also possible at higher cost from Beijing, or sometimes from other places in China) than to arrange a Tibet tour from Nepal.

Tibet is NOT a simple side trip from Kathmandu.  Minimum prices for excursions from Kathmandu to Lhasa — including round-trip transportation by air or jeep (or one way by jeep and the other way by air), accommodations, tour services, and visa and permit fees, are at least US$1000 per person for a trip that only allows 3 or 4 full days in Lhasa, US$1500 for a week in Tibet.

Traveling in Tibet on your own is very difficult these days. Some people manage to fly into Lhasa on their own from Chengdu in China, but they still must have a special Tibet permit that they get by having some minimum “pre-arranged” travel services like transfers to Lhasa from the airport and then a hotel booked for a few nights. After that they can essentially be on their own, but they can’t really get too far out of Lhasa. No local buses will take foreigners to most places. Individual tourists therefore have to band together to make their own group and hire a small bus or Land Cruiser (at foreign tourist prices, from a tour service company) to go places.

Some of the people who arrive in Tibet on tours have been able to extend their stays in Lhasa on their own, but even this can be problematic because of the fact that a “group visa” is usually issued and people are supposed to enter/exit at the same time. However, if you ask for it well in advance, you may be able to get a separate visa and book hotels for additional nights in Lhasa.  Average cost would be about US$100 per night for hotels. Ideally 2 people are a group, but we have heard of “groups” of one in Tibet.

Having said all the above, if you have lots of time and flexibility, it is possible that you can still do stuff in Tibet (almost) on your own.  But it is not likely to be easy, quick, or inexpensive to arrange.

Travelling in Tibet without a tour and without proper permits is illegal and can be dangerous.  If caught, you can be jailed, fined, or have to pay bribes. If caught, you will be deported from Tibet and China, and barred from re-entry. Foreigners hitchhiking in Tibet have died of exposure in unheated and open vehicles (beggars without permits can’t be choosy about who is willing to transport them) in extreme conditions of cold, high altitude desert.

Bhutan

Bhutan mapBhutan is another country that has very specific requirements for tourist travel. Tourist visas to Bhutan are issued only at the request of tour operators authorized by the government of Bhutan, and only for the specific dates for which a tour has been arranged and prepaid.  The government sets a minimum price of US$200 per person per day for all approved tours to Bhutan.  No tourist visas are issued to travelers who aren’t on tours, or for mountaineering or research visits.  Visas for purposes other than tourism are issued only with the approval of the government.

The only airline with scheduled service to Bhutan is Druk Air, the Royal Bhutan Airways, which will not accept reservations — much less issue tickets — unless you already have proof of an approved, prepaid tour to Bhutan. Druk Air departs from Bangkok, Calcutta, Dhaka, Delhi, Kathmandu, and Bagdogra, so AirTreks can help you arrange your travel to one of these departure points so you can meet up with your Druk Air flight.

The only diplomatic office for Bhutan in the USA is the Bhutan Mission to the United Nations (Consul General), 763 First Avenue, New York, NY 10017, telephone (212) 682-2268.

You may also wish to review the U.S. State Department’s consular information sheet for Bhutan or Bhutan’s tourist board website.