Sustainable Travel in Tibet

Often called the ‘roof of the world,’ Tibet sits more than 2.5 miles above sea level a high-altitude plateau. Five of Asia’s largest rivers originate here, and vast reserves of freshwater, stored in its frozen glaciers, give the country its other nickname, the ‘third pole.’ Surrounded by the impressive Himalayan, Karakoram and Pamir mountain ranges, Tibet shares the world’s tallest summit, Mount Everest, with Nepal, and is home to diverse wildlife including Tibetan antelope, Mongolian gazelle, wild yak, and snow leopard. Evidence suggests that ancestors of modern Tibetans date back more than 60,000 years, while the country is now home to a diversity of ethnic groups. Tibetan Buddhism is practiced across the deeply spiritual nation, evidenced in its monasteries, prayer wheels, and abundant colorful sacred flags. UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the capital, Lhasa, include two former palaces of the Dalai Lama, and Mount Kailash, in the Ngari Prefecture, is both a site of sacred pilgrimage and a challenging route for trekkers. Having seen the rise and fall of many dynasties, Tibet has been occupied as a province of China since 1950. Full of rugged and awe-inspiring vistas and humble, welcoming people, a trip to Tibet is considered an iconic travel experience.

What are they doing right?

The relatively fledgling but rapidly-growing tourism industry is slowly adopting some sustainability measures to safeguard its environment. Travel to Tibet requires a certified guide, and the Tibet Ecotravel Collective - supported by Columbia University - is a resource connecting foreign visitors to responsible local tour operators that assure tourism dollars reach local communities, which has particularly meaningful impact here given the fragile state of Tibet’s traditional culture. The Qomolangma National Nature Preserve’s community-managed Pendebas Program - meaning ‘workers who benefit the village’ - empowers locally-nominated volunteers to become leaders in natural resource management and conservation, primary healthcare and income generation, including sustainable tourism, in the region’s 406 villages. The program is credited with, among other accomplishments, reducing deforestation in the region by 80%, and it received the United Nation’s Equator Prize in 2004.

The Tiger Ranking

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The Third Pole encompasses the snow-draped mountains surrounding the Tibetan Plateau. It holds the largest store of permanent ice and permafrost outside the actual poles. The region is home to the world’s highest peaks, a large variety of ethnic communities and stunning biodiversity, including endangered snow leopards. The pole’s thousands of glaciers and regular snow melt form the headwaters for Asia’s ten largest rivers that provide drinking water, power and irrigation directly to more than 200 million people, and indirectly to some 1.3 billion people. Through the Conservation and Adaptation in Asia’s High Mountain Landscapes and Communities project, World Wildlife Foundation conducted a large-scale climate vulnerability assessment in the region to improve local communities’ climate change adaptation strategies and water security, as well as creating an interactive “geolab” to share knowledge. The project also focuses on conserving the region’s iconic snow leopard, because the intertwined ecosystems that create snow leopard habitat are crucial to the region’s adaptation and water security. By embracing sustainable, climate-smart practices and reducing human-wildlife conflict, communities are protecting these ecosystems and their futures. In addition to on-the-ground work, the project works at a higher level fostering regional alliance for conserving the ice and snow landscapes of the Third Pole.

Why the Tiger Ranking?