Why are EU travel firms offering holidays to Uyghur region?

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February 12, 2024 | EU Observer | By Henryk Szadziewski

The Chinese authorities are currently having their ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment in the Uyghur region. One of the key outlets for that messaging is tourism. Tourism signals that spaces are open for business and that everything is normal. From record numbers of visitors to the regional capital in 2023 to Wang Wenbin’s exhortations for “more friends from all countries to visit Xinjiang,” Chinese state media cannot get enough of tourism.

The problem is that crimes against humanity targeted at Uyghurs and other Turkic people are ongoing. Another problem is that international travel companies, including those from Europe, are complicit in the cleansing of atrocities that multiple entities have labeled a genocide.

It’s quite simple, the travel industry needs to wake up and end its cooperation with genocidaires.

In a January 2024 report, I highlighted 18 European travel companies from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands currently advertising tours to the Uyghur region. This work built on earlier research documenting seven travel companies based in Australia, North America, and the UK also promoting trips. Two of the seven companies subsequently dropped their itineraries.

My methodology was straightforward: a Google search. This suggests tours are not hard to find — and quite acceptable.

However, there are multiple concerns with these tours. Destinations featured in itineraries, such as Kashgar, Turpan, and Ürümchi, have been linked to crimes against humanity. These involve the suppression of religious beliefs, the destruction of cultural heritage belonging to Uyghurs and other Turkic communities, as well as widespread racial profiling, surveillance, internment, imprisonment, torture, sexual assault, and fatalities in custody.

Some tours present intrusive and problematic “experiences” for tourists, such as visits to Uyghur homes. In the pervasive atmosphere of securitisation and the existence of extra-legal punishment systems, which Uyghur family can say “no” to the local partner travel company organising such visits?

When I pointed out these concerns to the 18 European travel companies, there was not one response to my correspondence.

China is on the front foot to tell the world that its policies of “reeducation” in the Uyghur region have been a resounding success in curbing “extremism.” Along with tourism, stories of reformed and now productive Uyghurs abound in state media. However, the self-declared victory is in response to a self-declared issue. Professor Sean Roberts of The George Washington University called Beijing’s crackdowns on extremism problematic because it is unclear if there was ever any organised terror threat to China.

Nevertheless, China has pressed on with a policy of “inside out, outside in,” that sends hand-picked Uyghur influencers and emissaries into the world and invites journalists, diplomats, and academics to take highly-choreographed tours.

The narrative of a cleansed and safe Uyghur people and region invites us to forget the last seven years of brutal repression and believe in the new normal. It’s business as usual without the annoyance of unhappy Uyghurs.

Since China lifted its pandemic travel restrictions in 2023, trips to the Uyghur region advertised by European travel companies have appeared on the internet. The invitation to stop thinking about crimes against humanity and to conduct business as if nothing changed has proved too tempting.

As the issue of tours to the Uyghur region arose, travel companies claimed to the media that they no longer run tours or that they have not run a tour in several years. However, travel companies were unable to visit China between 2019 and 2023 due to Covid lockdowns, and the continued advertising of tours on websites blemishes commercial reputations. Why not take them down? This issue matters as the travel companies’ promotional material online reinforces China’s depiction of Uyghurs as folkloric and pre-modern. The long-standing repression of Uyghurs is partially premised on a developmentalist Chinese state mission to “reform” Uyghurs.

Yet there are companies profiteering from genocide and running tours to the Uyghur region. Some even cover up China’s destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage sites to entice customers. The widely condemned rebuilt Kashgar Old City, with its demolitions and dispossessions, has become a tourist attraction, one which Dutch company Riksja Travel describes as “tasteful.”

The way for international travel companies to fix the issue of complicity isn’t difficult. Stop advertising and running tours to the Uyghur region. This isn’t just the message from some activists. The industry itself has set the standards.

The European Travel Agents and Tour Operators’ Association has committed to human rights best practices according to the UN guiding principles on business and human rights and produced implementation guidelines on mainstreaming human rights into the work of European travel companies.

Not least, the travel companies need to place the Uyghur community at the top of its priority list. Many exiled Uyghurs are asking why tourists can tread the streets of their homeland when they have not heard from their loved ones in several years.

While some international travel companies explain that travel is “a force for good”, even when crimes against humanity are ongoing, such blanket statements need closer scrutiny, especially since these claims are made by entities with commercial interests. There are occasions when running or advertising tours may make no sense at all and this is one of them.