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The golden line to Lhasa

August 3, 2006
As the train from Beijing chugged into the Lhasa railway station on the night on July 3, China, belying American writer Paul Theroux's prognosis, realised its dream of integrating Tibet more effectively than it has in the past five decades.

Abandoned in 1987, revived in 1994 and reinforced in 2001 under China's Western Development Campaign, this railway has more than a symbolic meaning for China as the world's 'great engineering achievement'.

Cold calculations prevail behind the heroic display by the 26,000 engineers and workers who laid the track. For a regime that subscribes to pragmatism, making money in Tibet is expected to be high on the agenda.

The Chinese media frequently describes the project as a 'golden travel route'. But how 'golden' is the railway line to Lhasa?

First, some analysts have raised questions about the economic viability of the railway. China spent an estimated $3.16 billion for its construction, surpassing the $3 billion GDP of entire Tibet (as in 2005). But the construction costs could be reclaimed in less than a decade by several means, including tourism and the exploitation of natural resources.

For instance, some 800,000 visitors are expected to visit Tibet using the railway over the next year. This figure is expected to gallop to about 5.28 million by 2010.

According to the estimates of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Academy of Social Sciences and the Industrial Economics Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, this is expected to fetch more than $725 million.

In contrast, the 1.8 million visitors who arrived in Tibet by means other than railway in 2005 contributed only about $250 million.

Image: A train passes over a viaduct outside Golmud on the first part of the Qinghai-Tibet railway in China's northwest Qinghai province.

Text: Srikanth Kondapalli
Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier Slide Show: The world's highest railroad

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