Some Travel Companies Still Offer Trips to Xinjiang Despite Rights Abuses, Report Finds

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September 1, 2023 | Voice of America | By Liam Scott

Those trips risk bolstering Beijing’s destruction and co-optation of Uyghur culture and reinforcing the propaganda narrative that all is well in the region, according to the report released Wednesday by the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP).

Henryk Szadziewski, the report’s author, urges all travel companies to immediately stop offering tours to the region.

“By taking organized tours to the Uyghur Region, you really do run the risk of complicity with the genocide,” Szadziewski told VOA from Hawaii, where he is based.

“The optics of turning a profit while organizing tours to a region that has ongoing crimes against humanity and genocide are terrible,” said Szadziewski, who is also the UHRP’s research director.

Since the report was released, two companies — Canada-based Goway Travel and Australia-based Intrepid Travel — have said they would no longer offer tours to Xinjiang, according to the UHRP.

In a speech during a surprise visit to Xinjiang just days before the release of the UHRP report, Chinese President Xi Jinping said a top priority should be maintaining social stability and that enhancing the rule of law can achieve that, according to state news agency Xinhua.

“They don’t have any space to breathe,” said Zubayra Shamseden, a Uyghur exile who works at the UHRP. Shamseden pointed to the irony that Uyghurs’ movements in Xinjiang are tightly controlled but travel companies continue to offer tours to the region.

“What the Chinese state has left of public expressions of Uyghur identity has remained for commodification and exploitation,” Szadziewski wrote in the report.

These tours reinforce Beijing’s stereotypical presentation of Uyghurs as an “exotic” people who like to sing and dance, he said. Through these tours, “you really are supporting what the Chinese government has presented to you as a picture of Uyghur-ness,” Szadziewski added.

The companies also advertise opportunities to visit Uyghurs’ homes, which Szadziewski finds disturbing and called a violation of privacy and a continuation of the government’s surveillance programs. There has not been any evidence that Uyghurs receive any financial benefit from the tourism, he added.

These kinds of tours also buttress Beijing’s propaganda narrative that everything is all right in Xinjiang, Shamseden said. “Xi Jinping is trying to normalize the genocide,” she said. “They’re normalizing repression.”

As a Uyghur, Shamseden said it is particularly painful to watch the travel companies offer visits to the region while she and other Uyghurs are unable to return to their homeland or even speak with family and friends still there.

“They’re trading human rights for money,” she said. “The Uyghurs became a toy for them — an exhibit.”

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