A Uyghur Human Rights Project briefing by Henryk Szadziewski. Read our press statement on the briefing here; download the full briefing in English here; and view a printable, one-page summary of the briefing here.
I. Key Takeaways
- Prominent international travel companies are currently offering guided tours to East Turkistan amidst genocide and crimes against humanity;
- Sites in Kashgar, Turpan, Ürümchi, and other destinations on tour itineraries are connected to genocide and crimes against humanity through repression of religious belief and expression, destruction of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, as well as large-scale racial profiling, surveillance, internment and imprisonment of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples;
- Travel companies repeat and reinforce Chinese government narratives of an “exotic” people for the purpose of tourist consumption;
- Many of these tours provide perverse and problematic “experiences” for visitors, like visits to Uyghur homes, which families are not in a position to refuse, given an environment of securitization and state control. This constitutes a gross violation of privacy and perpetuates the surveillance programs that have been carried out in Uyghur homes;
- By bringing tourists to East Turkistan, these travel companies are implicitly supporting the normalization of genocidal Chinese government policies intended to destroy the Uyghur identity, and reinforce the complete denial of the Uyghur people to define “Uyghurness”;
- Seven recommendations to travel companies and trade associations call for ending tours to East Turkistan and for companies to meet internal, industry, and international environmental, social, and governance standards.
This briefing calls on international travel companies to end tours to East Turkistan. It also calls on tourists not to take organized tours to a region during an ongoing genocide. As much as it would test ethical limits to take a tour to Rwanda, Cambodia, Rakhine State, and Darfur in the midst of the atrocities in these places, the same applies to East Turkistan.
Uyghur families have been torn apart by internment, imprisonment, forced labor programs, and enforced disappearances. Uyghur communities have been decimated by the destruction of their religion, language, and cultural heritage. Due to birth prevention policies targeting Uyghur women, the Uyghur Tribunal found that the Chinese government is committing torture, crimes against humanity, and genocide.1“Uyghur Tribunal Judgement,” Uyghur Tribunal, December 9, 2021, online.
Travel to places of human tragedy is known as “dark” or “disaster” tourism. Visiting sites of ethnic cleansing, natural disasters, or war as a tourist is antithetical to the common idea of travel for leisure. Individuals who visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre in Cambodia may go with the intention of internalizing the lesson of “never again.” However, the travel experience to East Turkistan, as presented in the literature of international travel companies, is not about learning such lessons.
As much as it would test ethical limits to take a tour to Rwanda, Cambodia, Rakhine State, and Darfur in the midst of the atrocities in these places, the same applies to East Turkistan.
The tours amplify Chinese state narratives of Uyghurs as folkloric and lacking modernity. These narratives form part of the government developmentalist premise to “re-educate” Uyghurs out of their Uyghurness and into a compliant, economically exploitable, population. The depiction of Uyghurs in the tourist literature aims to convey a sense of authenticity. However, given the simulacra presented at tourist sites, the lack of ability to speak to Uyghurs freely, and the prevalence of Chinese government propaganda on conditions in East Turkistan, tours to the region are inauthentic.
Since the unwinding of pandemic restrictions on international travel, particularly with the ending of Beijing’s zero-Covid policy in December 2022, tourism to China has been gradually rebounding. On March 16, 2023, The Times of London published an online article titled “Best Silk Road tours: China and the Stans of Central Asia,” that recommended two tours to East Turkistan, one offered by Bamboo Travel and the other by Intrepid Travel.2Adrian Phillips, “Best Silk Road tours: China and the Stans of Central Asia,” TimesTravel, March 16, 2023, online. From the article, and from the evidence presented in this briefing, some international travel companies continue to offer tours despite evidence of atrocities. However, it is not too late to reverse this decision.
This briefing highlights tours to East Turkistan available through international travel companies for 2023–24. UHRP focuses on seven companies, detailing the destinations and sites included on travel itineraries. The briefing then explains how these destinations and sites are linked to aspects of the Uyghur genocide, particularly through internment, religious repression, as well as destruction of tangible and intangible heritage. We also scrutinize the extremely problematic activity of tourists visiting Uyghur homes as part of their travel.
The travel industry is eager to demonstrate a commitment to ethical standards of business practice. These are either internal, industry, or international standards, to which the travel companies presented in this briefing have agreed and supported. The gap between the values presented to the public and the ethics of traveling to East Turkistan on an organized tour are significant.
We argue that travel to East Turkistan through an organized tour enables the genocide in a number of ways. Whether it is through repetition of Chinese state narratives or participating in a commodified version of Uyghur identity and heritage permitted by the Chinese government, to working with local partners linked to the Chinese state, there is little to suggest that a process of Uyghur empowerment is taking place.
We believe that in order to meet the standards on local empowerment expressed in their corporate and industry statements, travel companies should offer support to the Uyghur diaspora community. Uyghurs overseas do not have the privilege of traveling to East Turkistan without risk of disappearance or imprisonment. They have also become disconnected from their loved ones in the region. Beyond the purview of the Chinese state, this is a community with whom allyship is ethical.
We recommend travel companies and trade associations call for an end to tours to East Turkistan and to increase due diligence processes and human rights compliance in line with international standards. Travel companies have the opportunity to turn from selling “Genocide Tours” to becoming Uyghur allies through publicly canceling tours and condemning China’s crimes against humanity.
This briefing was researched using desk-bound methods. Travel companies advertising in English and offering tours to East Turkistan were identified via an internet search in Google’s main search engine. In total, ten travel companies were identified with offices outside China. Of these, two companies (Intrepid Travel and Laurus Travel) offer set itineraries for 2023–24 directly on their website. UHRP, posing as potential tourists, emailed the other eight companies requesting further information on availability, possible dates of travel, and pricing for travel itineraries to East Turkistan. Of these eight, six companies responded, two (Martin Randall Travel and The Cultural Experience) did not, and one (On the Go Tours) currently does not include the region in itineraries. In total, seven travel companies offer trips to East Turkistan.
After collecting and archiving detailed itineraries of eight tours (Laurus Travel offers two), UHRP conducted a text analysis of the information. The analysis consisted of two steps: the first, an initial reading of the information to record basic data such as name of tour, destinations in East Turkistan, available dates, etc., and the second, a critical reading to note tourist site descriptions, tour activities, and any standout quotes. These were all recorded on a Google Sheet. The scope of the research was limited to international travel companies; however, China-based travel companies are active in East Turkistan and there is scope to investigate their operations as well.
IV. Travel Companies and Tours to East Turkistan
The following table is an overview of tours to East Turkistan offered by international travel companies available between 2023 and 2024. Information in grayscale indicates companies and tours not included in the analysis. However, these are included for completeness of the research.
|Company||Name of Tour||Destinations in East Turkistan||Dates Offered|
|Abercrombie & Kent||Silk Road tours & trips (website itinerary)/Tailor Made Silk Road (emailed itinerary)||Kashgar, Turpan and Ürümchi||Customized|
|Bamboo Travel||China’s Silk Road By Train (website and emailed)||Karakul, Kashgar, Tengritagh, Turpan and Ürümchi||Customized|
|Geographic Expeditions||The Silk Road (website)||Kashgar||No tours currently offered|
|China & Tibet Rail Discovery (emailed)||Kashgar Turpan, and Ürümchi||Customized|
|Goway Travel||Ancient Silk Road (website and emailed)||Kashgar, Turpan, and Ürümchi||Customized|
|Intrepid Travel3On August 29, 2023, a representative from Intrepid Travel informed UHRP that all departures from 2023 have been canceled, and the advertised trip and any other trips that include the Uyghur region are now off the market.||The Great Silk Road: Beijing to|
|Kashgar and Turpan||April to October 2024|
|Laurus Travel||Silk Road Adventure (website)||Karakul, Kashgar, Turpan, and Ürümchi||May to October 2023|
|Ethnic Borderlands of China (website)||Karakul, Kashgar, Turpan, and Ürümchi||April to October 2023|
|Martin Randall Travel||China’s Silk Road Cities (website)||Kashgar and Turpan||No response (last offered in 2020, no reason cited)|
|On the Go Tours||Silk Road Adventure (website)||Kashgar, Turpan, and Ürümchi||No tours currently offered|
|Silk Road of China Westbound (website)||Aksu, Kashgar, Korla, Turpan, and Ürümchi||No tours currently offered|
|The Cultural Experience||The Silk Roads in China (website)||Kashgar and Turpan||No response|
|Wild Frontiers (Myths and Mountains)||Silk Road Adventure in China (website)||Khotan, Kucha, Niya Tengritagh, Turpan, and Ürümchi||This tour was not offered at time of research|
|China Silk Road Taklamakan Adventure (emailed)||Aksu, Kashgar, Kucha, Mekit, and Turpan||Customized|
V. Key Concerns
Tourism in Sites of Genocide
International travel companies predominately offer itineraries in East Turkistan that include the three cities of Kashgar, Turpan, and the capital, Ürümchi. In addition, travel companies offer visits to other cities and destinations, such as Kucha, Mekit, and the Tengritagh. The following section examines specific tourist sites within these cities and destinations on travel company itineraries. We go on to discuss how these sites are linked to the Uyghur genocide through the well-documented issues of religious repression, destruction of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, as well as imprisonment and internment of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.
Kashgar is situated in the southwest of East Turkistan and has long been considered a Uyghur center of transcontinental trade, religious scholarship, and intellectual innovation. Given its past as a hub of the Silk Road and a crossroads of people and ideas, the city features on itineraries offered by all seven international travel companies under review.
Within the city, tour guides principally take visitors to four sites: the Afāq Khoja mazar (shrine), Id Kah Mosque, Old City, and Sunday Bazaar. Descriptions of these sites lean towards the folkloric and/or denial of Uyghur modernity that is familiar in Chinese state depictions of Uyghurs.4Li Hao, “Local dance party unfolds at Xinjiang’s food bazaar,” Global Times, May 15, 2023, online. For example, Abercrombie & Kent writes of the Sunday Bazaar:
A traditional event that dates back to the arrival of the first Uighur [sic] settlers (10th century) to the region, the bazaar is an invitation into a world unlike any other. The market site becomes a maze of stalls and shops with proud Uighur men dressed in great fleece coats and white turbans, crying out their wares each underbidding the other to lure the streams of buyers who flood into the area. There are proud leather workers who fashion fine boots; hat merchants who hand make exquisitely embroidered prayer caps; the livestock market where horse, cows and cattle are auctioned and the dozens of carpet and cloth stalls selling colorful rugs, many made from vibrant handcrafted felts.5Abercrombie & Kent. Correspondent, email message to author, 2023.
Similarly, Abercrombie & Kent repeats a description of the Afāq Khoja mazar as the “Xiangfei Tomb” that is common in Chinese discourse, a description that overlooks the sacred importance of the entire site to Uyghurs.6Werner Haug, “Destruction of Kashgar Over Time,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, March 9, 2022, online.
Abjak Hoja’s granddaughter, the ‘Fragrant Concubine’ is also buried here. The wife of an 18th century warrior, she was captured by the invading armies of the Qing emperor Qian Long and taken back to Beijing where she was noted for her great beauty. Refusing to become one of the emperor’s concubines, it is said she died of a broken heart. Her body was brought back to Kashgar where it now lies along with the sedan chair that carried her to her native land.7Abercrombie & Kent. Correspondent, email message to author, 2023.
Abjak Hoja’s granddaughter, the ‘Fragrant Concubine’ is also buried here. The wife of an 18th century warrior, she was captured by the invading armies of the Qing emperor Qian Long and taken back to Beijing where she was noted for her great beauty. Refusing to become one of the emperor’s concubines, it is said she died of a broken heart. Her body was brought back to Kashgar where it now lies along with the sedan chair that carried her to her native land.8Abercrombie & Kent. Correspondent, email message to author, 2023.
In addition to repetitions of Chinese state and society discourses of Uyghur people and spaces, there is little acknowledgement in site descriptions of the destruction of Kashgar’s Old City and Islamic tangible heritage, as well as suppression of religious belief. As one travel company writes, “This afternoon we will discover the delights of the Kashagr [sic] Old Town.”9“The Silk Roads in China: Journey to the West,” The Cultural Experience, n.d., online. Nevertheless, in its “China Silk Road Taklamakan Adventure” write up, Wild Frontiers does note how “Kashgar’s Old Town is a traditional Islamic city, though much of it has sadly now been destroyed by the Chinese.”10Wild Frontiers. Correspondent, email message to author, 2023. These rare contexts matter; however, the impacts of the demolitions need further exploration, especially given how entire neighborhoods and businesses were emptied to create the tourist simulacrum that is now Kashgar Old City. UHRP has extensively documented these local displacements and the capture of the tourist industry by Chinese companies, such as Zhongkun Investment Group.11William Drexel, “Kashgar Coerced: Forced Reconstruction, Exploitation, and Surveillance in the Cradle of Uyghur Culture,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, June 3, 2020, online; “Living on the Margins: The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, April 2, 2012, online.
Also included in tours to Kashgar is an opportunity to visit the Id Kah Mosque, a religious site described by Bamboo Travel as “Built in 1426, this is the largest mosque in Xinjiang and the centre of Muslim activities in Kashgar.”12Bamboo Travel. Correspondent, email message to author, 2023. The existence of Id Kah as a focal point for Islam in Kashgar throughout its history is undeniable; however, today, it also stands as Chinese state proof that Islam thrives in East Turkistan in spite of documented restrictions placed on imams, closure to worshippers, and removal of Islamic motifs.13“China Focus: Diplomats from 14 countries visit Xinjiang,” XinhuaNet, April 28, 2023, online; Peter Irwin, “Islam Dispossessed: China’s Persecution of Uyghur Imams and Religious Figures,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, May 13, 2021, online; Shohret Hoshur, “Historic Kashgar mosque open for tourists, but not worshipers,” Radio Free Asia, July 3, 2023, online; Bahram Sintash, “Removal of Islamic Motifs Leaves Xinjiang’s Id Kah Mosque ‘a Shell For Unsuspecting Visitors,’” Radio Free Asia, May 22, 2020, online. Neighborhood mosques, where many Uyghurs worship, have not remained intact. In 2019, the head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee in Kashgar told Radio Free Asia that in 2016, 70 percent of the mosques in the city had been demolished “because there were more than enough mosques and some were unnecessary.”14Shohret Hoshur, “Under the Guise of Public Safety, China Demolishes Thousands of Mosques,” Radio Free Asia, December 19, 2016, online. Regionwide, a 2019 UHRP report concluded that 10 to 15 thousand mosques have either been completely or partially demolished, or had architectural elements removed.”15Bahram K. Sintash, “Demolishing Faith: The Destruction and Desecration of Uyghur Mosques and Shrines,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, October 28, 2019, online.
Expressions of religious belief and practice is one of the Chinese government’s primary rationales for sending Uyghurs to concentration camps. Leaked documents, such as the Xinjiang Police Files and the Qaraqash Document detail the internment of Uyghurs for studying religion, or even having a household with a “dense religious atmosphere.”16“The Xinjiang Police Files,” Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, online; “‘Ideological Transformation’: Records of Mass Detention from Qaraqash, Hotan,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, February 18, 2020, online. Furthermore, in 2021, UHRP compiled a dataset consisting of 1,046 cases of Turkic imams and other religious figures from East Turkistan detained for their association with religious teaching and community leadership since 2014.17Irwin, “Islam Dispossessed: China’s Persecution of Uyghur Imams and Religious Figures.”
Turpan and Ürümchi
In Turpan, a city to the northeast of East Turkistan, travel companies generally take tourists to the ruined cities of Yarkhoto and Karakhoja, the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, Astana Cemetery, and Emin Minaret. Many travel companies (Abercrombie & Kent, Bamboo Travel, Geographic Expeditions, Laurus Travel, and Wild Frontiers) also include the Karez, a series of subterranean channels dating from the 15th century that rely on gravity to convey water from the Tengritagh to the Turpan Basin. These channels play a crucial role in the ecosystem by supplying water for various purposes such as household consumption, agricultural irrigation, and supporting the habitats of indigenous plants and wildlife.18Rachel Harris and Aziz Isa Elkun, “The Complicity of Heritage: Cultural Heritage and Genocide in the Uyghur Region,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, February 9, 2023, online.
There is little acknowledgement in site descriptions [by travel companies] of the destruction of Kashgar’s Old City and Islamic tangible heritage, as well as suppression of religious belief.
The capital city of Ürümchi is mostly a transportation logistics hub that moves tourists via rail, road, or air to other cities in East Turkistan, as well as destinations in Tibet and China. However, some travel companies use the opportunity of being in Ürümchi to include a visit to the Xinjiang Regional Museum. The museum is a repository of state erasures of Uyghur history, culture, and identity, and scholar Anna Hayes notes that “the non-Han nationalities of Xinjiang continue to be marginalised within the official regional narrative contained within the Xinjiang Regional Museum.”19Anna Hayes, “Space, place and ethnic identity in the Xinjiang Regional Museum,” in Inside Xinjiang, (London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 2015), 21. Also included in Ürümchi itineraries is the nearby Boghda Kul (Heavenly Lake) in the Tengritagh (Heavenly Mountains).
The Karez and Tengritagh are recognized as important sites of cultural heritage among the Turkic peoples in East Turkistan. For example, not only do Karez systems provide a means of sustenance for local communities, but they also hold cultural significance as an amalgamation of history, culture, and the distinctive knowledge of its creators.20Harris and Elkun, “The Complicity of Heritage: Cultural Heritage and Genocide in the Uyghur Region.”
However, at both sites, researchers describe serious issues of destruction and discrimination. Recent studies document the coercive relocation of Kazakh communities and the transfer of their ancestral territories in the Tengritagh to Chinese tourist companies for commercial purposes.21Guldana Salimjan, “Camp land: Settler ecotourism and Kazakh dispossession in contemporary Xinjiang,” Lausan, September 1, 2021, online. Testimonies reveal that the expansion of tourism activities throughout the Tengritagh has resulted in substantial ecological harm and has deprived communities of their land rights.22Harris and Elkun, “The Complicity of Heritage: Cultural Heritage and Genocide in the Uyghur Region.” As noted in the UHRP report, The Complicity of Heritage: Cultural Heritage and Genocide in the Uyghur Region, the Karez has experienced a rewrite of its origins transferring what was an achievement of Uyghur knowledge and endeavor into the history of the Chinese people. Furthermore, environmental damage to the Karez from toxic waste and over-drilling of power wells has led to a situation where “90 percent of Karez in the Turpan Basin are on the verge of drying out.”23Ibid.
The authors of the UHRP report, Professor Rachel Harris and Aziz Isa Elkun, write, “As acknowledged by the International Criminal Court, acts of dispossession and destruction of cultural heritage are often the precursor to acts of genocide. Attacks on cultural heritage, from sacred architecture to community practices and customs, are inseparable from direct physical attacks on human beings. They are a form of cultural warfare aimed at the elimination of a people and their identity.”24Ibid.
Other destinations on international travel company arranged tours include the Altishahr cities of Aksu and Kucha, Mekit for the Taklamakan Desert, as well as Karakul, a lake southwest of Kashgar. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) there are six detention facilities in the immediate vicinity of Aksu City, including “Aksu Facility #3” in the city center.25“Aksu Facility #3,” Xinjiang Data Project, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, January 31, 2020, online. An itinerary prepared by Wild Frontiers accommodates tourists in the Hongfu Jinlan Hotel, which is approximately two kilometers from Aksu Facility #3, where ASPI documented evidence of forced labor and “re-education.” Similarly, in Kucha, ASPI records three detention facilities, including “Kucha Facility #3.”26Kucha Facility #3,” Xinjiang Data Project, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, June 30, 2020, online. According to the Wild Frontiers itinerary, tourists can stay at the Lidu Hotel, approximately four kilometers from Kucha Facility #3, a detention facility also linked to “re-education” and forced labor. Overland travel on the Wild Frontiers itinerary takes visitors past numerous other detention facilities recorded by ASPI.27“Map,” Xinjiang Data Project, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2020, online.
In the immediate vicinity of Mekit, ASPI locates five detention facilities. In 2020, Radio Free Asia, citing local sources, reported that Mekit was designated as the site of a “restricted-access ‘residential area’ to relocate Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities released from internment camps.” The residential area would comprise a “guarded community of former inmates…ranging from several hundred families to 7,000 people.” The local source told Radio Free Asia that the area had only “one way in and out.”28Shohret Hoshur, “Xinjiang Authorities Relocate Camp Detainees to Restricted-Access ‘Residential Area,’” Radio Free Asia, August 4, 2020, online.
It is perverse that overseas visitors on organized tours should visit Uyghur homes when Uyghur families cannot host their own family members who live abroad.
Between one to three million Uyghurs and other Turkic people have at one time been forcibly sent to concentration camps,29“The Xinjiang Police Files,” Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, online. which are, in all practicality, large-scale prisons where detainees are confined in overcrowded conditions, with no fixed release dates and held on unfounded accusations. Disturbing accounts from former detainees reveal harrowing experiences of indoctrination, physical abuse, torture, sexual assault, and coerced sterilization.30“UHRP Welcomes Survivors to the US to Give First-Hand Testimony on Atrocity Crimes Against Women Inside and Outside China’s Concentration Camps,” Uyghur Human Rights Project, March 22, 2023, online.
Problematic Visits to Uyghur Homes
Several international travel companies include opportunities for tourists to visit Uyghur homes as part of their tours. Goway Travel offers to “Visit a local Uygur’s [sic] Family at Old Town. Visit the Old Town of Kashgar, where we have our guests experience a local makeup.”31Goway Travel. Correspondent, email message to author, 2023. Goway Travel also advertises on its website that, “You’ll also meet with a local Uyghur family while in Turpan, which gives you the opportunity [to] learn to make Uyghur foods and get in touch with this minority Chinese culture.”32“Ancient Silk Road: Xian to Urumqi,” Goway Travel, n.d., online. Also in Turpan, Geographic Expeditions describes how “We will then have a Uygur [sic] Family Visit where we will enjoy the traditional Uygur ethnic dancing and local snacks, experiencing real life and culture.”33Geographic Expeditions. Correspondent, email message to author, 2023. Laurus Travel details how tourists in Kashgar will “spend the afternoon visiting a local Uighur [sic] family and the extraordinary Sunday Bazaar where half of Central Asia seems to converge.”34“Silk Road Adventure (18 days),” Laurus Travel, n.d., online.
In the context of an ongoing genocide, there is no possibility that Uyghur families can freely decline home visits from tourists, which could amount to accusations of extremism. It is perverse that overseas visitors on organized tours should visit Uyghur homes when Uyghur families cannot host their own family members who live abroad. Further, the presence of family outsiders in Uyghur homes has been a key tactic in the surveillance and exploitation of Uyghurs. In December 2017, the implementation of the “Becoming Family” policy involved the deployment of over a million Han Chinese officials who spent a week living with families, primarily in rural areas. Under this policy, referred to as “big sisters or brothers,” these officials typically stay with Uyghur families. As part of this initiative, close attention was paid to the minutest details of daily life, aiming to uncover any indications of external affiliations, such as religious beliefs like Islam, observed through actions like abstaining from pork consumption, smoking, or alcohol.35“Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots,” Human Rights Watch, April 19, 2021, online.
Apart from the intrusive “Becoming Family” policy, home visits and stays have also followed more usual practices of opening up family spaces to tourists. This shift from cadre-led homestays to those catering to tourists is evident in the tourism development plan for Kashgar Prefecture, spanning from 2018 to 2030.36“新疆喀什地区旅游业发展总体规划(2018–2030年 [Plan for Tourism Development in Kashgar, Xinjiang (2018–2030)],” Kashgar Prefecture Bureau of Culture, Radio, Television and Tourism, n.d. The plan aims to encourage tourist home visits and stays as a means to improve livelihoods. One specific area targeted for homestay tourism is the Kozichi Yarbeshi (Gaotai) neighborhood within Kashgar Old City, which was largely evacuated and demolished. The presence of both cadre and tourist home visits and stays effectively created transparent boundaries within Uyghur homes, enabling outsiders to peer into their intimate spaces.37Henryk Szadziewski, Mary Mostafanezhad, and Galen Murton, “Territorialization on tour: The tourist gaze along the Silk Road Economic Belt in Kashgar, China,” Geoforum 128 (2022): 135-147, accessed July 26, 2023, online.
VI. Standards of Business Practice
International travel companies are held accountable through internal, industry, and international standards. The norms outlined in this section are laudable and are public statements of commitment to people and places in which travel companies operate; however, travel companies fail to meet these standards by continuing to organize tours in East Turkistan. The gap between the concerns outlined in Section V and the standards identified in this section are not a comment on how travel companies run their businesses as a whole. Yet, they are a comment on the negligence of travel companies to conduct the due diligence required to meet their own and industry standards.
Corporate Social Responsibility Statements of Travel Companies
The international travel companies under review in this briefing make available on their websites corporate social responsibility (CSR) statements, or value statements on the ways in which they are good corporate global citizens and focus on the relationship between travel and local empowerment. For example, Bamboo Travel claims, “We work hard to ensure that our tours are beneficial to the local community and that your money goes directly to the communities you visit as much as possible. We work with carefully chosen locally run partners in all our countries, ensuring that our guests will be accompanied by local guides & drivers throughout, and staying in smaller locally owned accommodation wherever possible.”38“Our Responsible Tourism Pledge,” Bamboo Travel, n.d., online. Others, such as Geographic Expeditions, express how corporate values on diversity are linked to selective choices of business partners, stating that they “…explore other countries and cultures appreciating their different perspectives, carefully weighing where to invest and build relationships.”39“The GeoEx Difference,” Geographic Expeditions, n.d., online.
Further, travel companies attach a range of values to statements of ethical behavior, from the protection of the environment to inclusion of local people to a sense of responsible behavior. Intrepid Travel writes on its website, “We’re all about sustainable, experience-rich travel. That means using our trips as a force for good, as well as good times. We’re genuinely connected to and invested in the places we go, the people we meet along the way, and the communities at the heart of every Intrepid experience.”40“Intrepid’s Purpose & Mission,” Intrepid Travel, n.d., online. Similarly, Wild Frontiers states, “For us Responsible Travel coincides with Responsible Business, designing adventures with the local people, culture and eco-system in mind. We are very aware of the economic, ecological and ethical impact tourism can have on ancient cultures and fragile environments. We realise that taking clients through these regions can have a detrimental impact if not handled responsibly and as such, on all of our tours we go to great lengths to minimise the negative and accentuate the positive.”41“Responsible Travel,” Wild Frontiers, n.d., online.
Descriptions of these sites lean towards the folkloric and/or denial of Uyghur modernity that is familiar in Chinese state depictions of Uyghurs.
On some travel company websites value statements were not available, such as Goway Travel. Abercrombie & Kent promotes philanthropic work “dedicated to improving lives and livelihoods in the communities where our guests travel…that focus on…Conservation, Education, Health and Job Creation — making for a philanthropic commitment unequalled in the travel industry.”42“A&K Philanthropy Partners with Local Communities to Empower Lasting Change, Abercrombie & Kent, n.d., online.
Corporate Social Responsibility Statements of Trade Associations
The geographic distribution of the international travel companies considered here is global, including offices in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Industry associations exist in each of these countries, each with their own standards of business practice for members.
|Abercrombie & Kent||“55 offices in 30 countries,” including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, United States (HQ), and United Kingdom.|
|Bamboo Travel||United Kingdom|
|Geographic Expeditions||United States|
|Goway Travel||Australia, Canada, Philippines, and United States|
|Intrepid Travel||Several locations, including Australia (HQ), Canada, and United Kingdom|
|Martin Randall Travel||Australia and United Kingdom (HQ)|
|On the Go Tours||Australia, South Africa, and United Kingdom|
|The Cultural Experience||United Kingdom|
|Wild Frontiers (Myths and Mountains)||United States|
The United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) lists Abercrombie & Kent, Goway Travel, Intrepid Travel, and Laurus Travel as members.43“Active Member Directory,” United States Tour Operators Association, n.d., online. Included in USTOA’s mission and goal statement is that “USTOA…requires members to adhere to the highest standards in the industry. Among these is the principle of ethical conduct, which requires members to conduct business according to a set of professional standards which include representing all facts, conditions and requirements relating to tours and vacation packages truthfully and accurately.”44“About USTOA,” United States Tour Operators Association, n.d., online.
The Association of British Travel Agents, now known by its acronym ABTA, includes Abercrombie & Kent, Intrepid Travel, and On the Go Tours as members.45“ABTA Member search,” ABTA, n.d., online. ABTA, as a member of the Roundtable on Human Rights in Tourism, is part of a collaborative network consisting of civil society organizations, tour operators, and travel associations. This alliance is committed to upholding human rights in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.46“Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2011, online. As ABTA states, “Relevant human rights in tourism include labour rights, child rights and anti-discrimination.”47“Human rights,” ABTA, n.d., online.
Another UK-based entity is the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), with Abercrombie & Kent, Bamboo Travel, and Wild Frontiers as members.48“AITO members,” AITO, n.d., online. AITO focuses on the environmental aspects of sustainable tourism in a statement of principles, however, it also encourages travel companies to “Respect local cultures – traditions, religions and built heritage, [as well as] Benefit local communities – both economically and socially.”49“Sustainable tourism,” AITO, n.d., online.
The Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO) lists among its membership Abercrombie & Kent and Intrepid Travel, and On the Go Tours,50“Search CATO Tour Operators & Wholesalers,” Council of Australian Tour Operators, n.d., online. and requires “Members of CATO pledge themselves to conduct their business activities in a manner that promotes the ideal of integrity in travel.”51“Code of Ethics,” Council of Australian Tour Operators, n.d., online.
Human Rights Standards
The Global Code of Ethics for Tourism (GCET) is foundational in establishing a set of non-legally binding international standards for responsible and sustainable tourism. The code provides guidance to governments, the travel industry, local communities, and tourists. The primary objective of the GCET is to ensure that tourism maximizes benefits while minimizing any negative impacts on the environment, cultural heritage, and societies. Originally adopted by the General Assembly of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in 1999, the United Nations officially recognized the GCET two years later.52“Global Code of Ethics for Tourism,” United Nations World Tourism Organization, n.d., online.
In 2011, the UNWTO introduced a Private Sector Commitment to the GCET, which was intended for private enterprises around the world to endorse. By signing this commitment, companies commit to upholding, promoting, and implementing the principles of the GCET.53“Private Sector Signatories of the Commitment,” United Nations World Tourism Organization, n.d., online. The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) signed the pledge, of which Laurus Travel is a member.54“Homepage,” ACTA – Association of Canadian Travel Agencies and Travel Advisors, n.d., online.
In 2015, the World Committee on Tourism Ethics presented a proposal to the UNWTO General Assembly, suggesting the transformation of the GCET into an international convention. During the deliberations, the Working Group decided not to introduce significant changes to the fundamental principles of the GCET and the Draft Convention on Tourism Ethics includes them in a section titled “Ethical Principles in Tourism.” The English version of the Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics was approved by the UN General Assembly in 2019.55“Ethics Convention,” United Nations World Tourism Organization, n.d., online. Article 7, Tourism, a user of cultural resources and a contributor to their enhancement, and Article 8, Tourism, a beneficial activity for host countries and communities, are most relevant to the protection of Uyghur communities from the destruction of tangible and intangible culture.56“Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics,” United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2020, online.
International travel companies should not be offering tours to East Turkistan as the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples undergo a genocide. This briefing has outlined how a visit to East Turkistan puts travel companies and their customers in a region where, according to the United Nations, China may have committed crimes against humanity.57“OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, August 31, 2022, online. Specific sites in Kashgar, Turpan, Ürümchi, and other destinations included on tour itineraries are connected to genocide through repression of religious belief, destruction of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, as well as internment and imprisonment.
Furthermore, the repetition of Chinese government narratives of Uyghurs as folkloric and pre-modern in the literature distributed to potential tourists is, at best, naive. The long-standing repression of Uyghurs and the genocide is partially premised on a developmentalist Chinese state mission to “reform” Uyghurs. While the Chinese government maintains a narrative that Uyghurs were in need of “re-education” to keep them from “extremism,” the indoctrination in the concentration camps was designed to erase the perceived backwardness of Uyghur identity and to assimilate them into Han society. Tour companies should not be reinforcing the idea of Uyghurs as pre-modern for tourist consumption of the exotic. Uyghur modernity is defined by Uyghurs and by Uyghur ways of knowing.
By visiting these simulacra of Uyghurness, the travel company and visitor on an organized tour are complicit in the denial of the Uyghur people to define their own identity.
The Uyghur identity on display in East Turkistan is that which has been permitted by the Chinese state. What the Chinese state has left of public expressions of Uyghur identity has remained for commodification and exploitation not only by visitors on tours from overseas, but also domestic tourists.58Eva Xiao, “Investing in Tourism in Xinjiang, Beijing Seeks New Ways to Control the Region’s Culture,” ChinaFile, May 12, 2023, online; Georg Fahrion, “The Three Worlds of Xinjiang,” Spiegel International, May 17, 2023, online. By visiting these simulacra of Uyghurness, the travel company and visitor on an organized tour are complicit in the denial of the Uyghur people to define their own identity.
In addition, tourism is a primary means with which the Chinese state territorializes and securitizes East Turkistan. The tourist presence coerces Uyghurs to perform a revisioned version of their culture, history, and religion as the security apparatus of the state maintains this fictional depiction. As Shani Brown and O’Brien write:
…tourism to Xinjiang is presented as a “success” of the camps and conscripted into the “Sinicisation” of the region and the secularising of minorities’ cultures. Places and practices are deconstructed as cultural heritage, and reconstructed to provide tourists with “exotic” experiences of “wonderful Xinjiang.” This transforms the “tourist gaze” into a “testimonial” one: tourists to Xinjiang are made into witnesses that “Xinjiang is beautiful” and Uyghurs are “happy.” In this, touristic development and tourists themselves are key agents in the CCP’s territorialisation of Xinjiang, the sinicisation of Uyghur culture, and the legitimation of the violence of the camps.
Nothing under current conditions in East Turkistan aligns with travel company and industry commitments to protection and empowerment of local communities. Indeed, one travel company accommodates visitors in Kashgar and Turpan in the Jin Jiang group of hotels, which is a state-owned enterprise. Seven years into a campaign of intensified repression and with free access to documentation about conditions, international travel companies operating in East Turkistan cannot say they are unaware of the crimes against humanity ongoing in the region. This neglect of due diligence is harmful to Uyghurs.
Nothing under current conditions in East Turkistan aligns with travel company and industry commitments to protection and empowerment of local communities.
Travel companies and tourists on organized tours may argue that informational isolation of East Turkistan allows China’s genocide to go on unobserved. If this is the case, there is nothing in the travel company literature that indicates travel to East Turkistan under this pretext. Information provided to potential tourists misrepresents conditions for Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in East Turkistan in contradiction to company statements on responsible tourism and industry standards.
For International Travel Companies
- Cease all tours in East Turkistan. There is no ethical way to conduct tourism in East Turkistan, a site of active crimes against humanity and genocide;
- Conduct thorough due diligence checks before offering tours and declare all local partners in tour literature. Consultation with Uyghur communities overseas is easy and demonstrates a commitment to ethical practices. Companies run the risk of legitimizing tangible and intangible cultural erasure when working with Chinese state-owned partners;
- Seek consent for home visits from homeowners only and under conditions where families can freely deny or accept offers without the threat of state retribution. Consent cannot be given where there is no capacity or framework for it, as is the case in East Turkistan;
- Commit to the highest of international human rights standards for the travel industry, the Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics approved by the UN General Assembly in 2019, and adhere to its articles through an annual review of operations.
For Travel Company Trade Associations (USTOA, ABTA, AITA, ACTA, and CATO)
- Review membership policies and environmental, social, and governance guidelines. These should be revised to include an end to offering travel to areas that are experiencing crimes against humanity and genocide, and where the local population is actively harmed;
- Ensure all member companies clearly state conditions about human rights violations in promotional literature. Besides the risk to companies, prospective customers are in danger of indirect complicity;
- Adhere to the Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics approved by the UN General Assembly in 2019 as the benchmark for ethical standards in conducting business. Assessments of company’s human rights compliance should be conducted regularly and with a meaningful process toward improving performance.
IX. About the Author
Genocide Tours was researched and written by Dr. Henryk Szadziewski, Director of Research at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
The author is grateful to UHRP staff Omer Kanat, Peter Irwin, Babur Ilchi, and Ben Carrdus who reviewed early and subsequent drafts. Any remaining errors of fact or judgment are the author’s responsibility.
Cover image credit: Patrick Wack
On August 3, 2023, the Uyghur Human Rights Project sent an email to Abercrombie & Kent, Bamboo Travel, Geographic Expeditions, Goway Travel, Intrepid Travel, Laurus Travel, and Wild Frontiers (also doing business as Myths and Mountains) informing them that their company had been named in a forthcoming report. The email addresses of the international travel companies are all publicly listed. On August 7, 2023, an employee of Geographic Expeditions acknowledged receipt of UHRP’s email. After a sequence of communications, four members of UHRP’s staff met with two representatives of Intrepid Travel on August 16, 2023. The Intrepid representatives informed UHRP that Intrepid Travel is currently conducting a global human rights assessment of its operations. On August 29, 2023, a representative from Intrepid Travel informed UHRP that all departures from 2023 have been canceled, and the advertised trip and any other trips that include the Uyghur region are now off the market.
Genocide Tours: International Travel Companies in East Turkistan
“I Escaped, But Not to Freedom”: Failure to Protect Uyghur Refugees
No Time to Lose: Uyghurs Stuck in the United States Asylum System
The Complicity of Heritage: Cultural Heritage and Genocide in the Uyghur Region
“We know you better than you know yourself”: China’s transnational repression of the Uyghur diaspora
Watch the UHRP co-sponsored event featuring the presentation of a new report by Dr. David Tobin and Nyrola Elimä on transnational repression.