A Lot of “Tibetan” Travel Agencies are not Tibetan
Travelers to Tibet are increasingly aware of the need to support the Tibetan economy and culture by hiring Tibetan-owned travel companies and local Tibetan guides.
Unfortunately, there has been very little information online to help you find dependable agencies truly owned and run by Tibetans.
If you Google “tibet travel” or something similar, you will get a whole bunch of Chinese-owned companies trying hard to look Tibetan. We understand that in Lhasa it is common even for Chinese guides to pretend they are Tibetan, or “half” Tibetan.
The online Tibet travel discussion forums are full of requests for reliable companies, but these requests very rarely receive a clear answer. All too often, the people who answer are travel companies pretending to be unbiased travelers! Many are not, but it becomes hard to know who to trust.
From your home country, while you are planning your trip, it’s almost impossible to sift the real thing from the fakes, and there are a lot of fakes out there.
So Which Travel Companies are Both Truly Tibetan and Dependable?
We have been researching this issue on and off for the last several months, both to help you find trustworthy Tibetan travel companies, and also to help support the honest, hard-working Tibetan-owned travel agencies.
And we are very happy to offer the following list of Tibet-based and Tibetan-owned travel companies that we believe you can trust.
Lhasa Travel Agencies
- Tibet Highland Tours
Another agency based in Lhasa, specifically recommended to us by an extremely knowledgeable Tibet hand, Losang from The Land of Snows, is Tibet Highland Tours. The owner, Dechen, says Losang, started out as one of the few female tour guides in Tibet in the late ’80′s and then went on to start her own company. She employs Tibetan drivers and guides from across Tibet and she always gives a portion of the profits to projects in impoverished, rural areas of Tibet. From their website:
Unlike many travel agencies that arrange tours to Tibet, we are not based in Beijing, Chengdu or Shanghai. We are based right in the heart of Lhasa, less than a 1 minute walk from Barkhor Square. All of our office staff, guides and drivers are Tibetans who are intimately familiar with Tibetan culture, language and religion. This gives us an advantage over most companies arranging travel to Tibet.
Our company is not out just to make money. Our goal is to give back to as many poor Tibetan communities as possible. Several of our office staff are from remote, poor villages at the base of the Himalaya Mountains. A portion from each tour goes towards projects that we carry out in these communities.
- Tibet Wind Horse Adventure
Tibet Wind Horse, out of Lhasa, has probably the longest history of any Tibetan-owned travel agency, and a sterling reputation. They are trusted by Geographic Expeditions and Smithsonian (USA) to partner with on Tibet tours, and we have friends who are US tour guides who have repeatedly used them with great satisfaction to run their Tibet trips. We highly recommend them. Here’s what they say about themselves:
We run trips all over Tibetan areas of China but specialize in customized and adventure itineraries in Central Tibet….We are proud of our reputation in Tibet and urge you to ask specifically about Tibet Wind Horse Adventure. (Watch out….some copy cat Chinese companies are operating under very similar names to us!) We have experience with an entire range of clients, from individual scholars with obscure research goals to large groups with tight international schedules…Recently Wind Horse was restructured to become a co-op and the first fully private travel company in Tibet.
- Explore Tibet
Sonam Jamphel from Explore Tibet contacted us and asked us for a recommendation. We asked him some questions about his company and services, which Sonam Jamphel responded to very promptly and thoroughly, so we researched them on the Tibet travel forums, and also asked Losang at The Land of Snows, and believe that they are a good company. Some information on their website:
Explore Tibet is a bona fide Tibetan owned travel agency and Tibet tour operator developed by a team of local explorers who have thorough and accurate knowledge about Tibet package tour, Tibet hotel and all destinations for Tibet tours…. We specialize in tailor made tours in the whole Tibet plateau, based on the needs and abilities of our clients. This is why most of our business is referred from existing customers, who frequently return to travel with us again.
All of the staff at EXPLORE TIBET are local Tibetans with many years of traveling experience. Many of them have received trainings in ecotourism organized by the Tibetan Village Project and sponsored by the esteemed Columbia University.
Amdo Travel Agencies
Snow Lion Tours
Losang recommends Snow Lion Tours as “probably the best agency to arrange travel through Amdo with.” The owner, Wangden Tsering, he says, is “friendly, honest, hard-working and arranges excellent tours to all areas of Tibet. He is based in Amdo, but is one of the few agencies that can arrange travel to all of Tibet.” From their website:
As the old Tibetan saying goes, “Wherever you are comfortable is your home; whoever treats you well is your family.” We created SnowLion Tours with the idea that as Tibetans, we could utilize our local expertise to create authentic journeys to off-the-beaten-path locations. By sharing with you our intimate knowledge of Tibetan culture and land, we can show you the best Tibet has to offer. While traveling with us, you may find yourself drinking tea with red-robed monks, riding horses on the shores of turquoise lakes, eating meals with nomads inside yak-hair tents, and watching fiery sunsets over the Himalayas.
- Jimpa Travel
Jimpa Travel is a small company, Losang tells us, that arranges excellent tours of both Amdo and Kham. Jimpa is a former monk, and one of a handful of Tibetans who is fluent in all 3 dialects of Tibetan as well as English and French. From his website:
Our guides have been showing people beautiful Tibet for over seven years. As we are Tibetan, we are able to give you an authentic Tibetan experience, making sure you see the important sights along with seeing the real people of Tibet. We work with each customer to tailor a tour that they want and are comfortable with…Our tour guides speak, of course, Chinese and Tibetan, and also English, French, and Italian….Since these are our people and this is where we live, we put a portion of our proceeds to help poor Tibetan students with their education.
Kham Travel Agencies
- Tashi Tours
In Dzado, Losang recommends his good friend Tashi Samdup, “a local guide in Dzado to take you around.” From Tashi’s website:
Let Tashi take you on an unforgettable tour of the Tibet most tourists never get to see. Leave the well-trodden tourist trail behind and dive into nomad country…Whether you want to camp with nomads, explore Tibet’s fascinating monasteries or simply hang out with the locals, we can guarantee you’ll take away memories that will last a lifetime.
Losang says of them, “Chyoger Treks is a division of Definitely Nomadic, a small company in Kham that works to preserve Tibetan culture. It is owned by Angela, an American from Colorado, and her Tibetan husband Djarga. They are based in Lhagang near the town of Dartsendo/Kangding. In addition to running a great cafe and guesthouse, they operate excellent treks and horse treks through the remote regions of Kham.” From the website:
Chyoger Treks and Khampa Nomad Arts Cooperative are businesses based on the social enterprise model. We work to improve the lives of the people of Kham, and to share this culture with the outside world.
Based in and run out of Lhagang in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Region in western China, Chyoger Treks and Khampa Nomad Arts Cooperative are jointly owned and operated by Djarga Mira of Lhagang, and Angela Lankford, of Westcliffe, Colorado. Djarga and Angela met in 2001 in Kangding when Angela was on vacation in the area; they married in 2006. They have a little girl named Sonam Tsomo, whom you are very likely to meet if you come visit us in Kham!
We are not paid in any way to recommend these companies. Of course we cannot offer any guarantees, but we include each of them here with the genuine belief that they are dependable businesses owned by Tibetans.
Of course nothing beats personal experience, so we would really love to hear feedback from your personal experience with any of these companies! Just give us your thoughts in the comments section below.
And of course, please ask a lot of questions to any agency you decide to work with, and if you need more advice, jump on the Tibet discussion forums from Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor and start asking folks there what they think.
If you found this post useful, we would really love it if you share it with your Facebook fans or Twitter followers or Google+ circles today. All it takes is a simple click on the “like,” “share,” “tweet,” or Google+ buttons to the left of the post. Thanks!
By Lobsang Wangdu