BEIJING — Chinese authorities jittery about protests during the Mount Everest leg of the Olympic torch relay have abruptly reversed a decision to reopen Tibet to foreign tourists.
Foreigners have not received permits to visit the Himalayan region since deadly anti-government riots broke out in the capital, Lhasa. Tourism authorities announced last week that foreign tour groups would be allowed in on May 1, the start of a three-day national holiday.
Tour operators said Thursday, however, that the Tibetan Tourism Bureau told them this week to stop arranging trips for foreigners. They said the bureau cited the need for safe passage for the torch relay to the summit of Everest, as well as continuing safety concerns in Lhasa.
The torch was met by major demonstrations in San Francisco, London and Paris this week on its relay around the world. Thousands of protesters angry at China's human rights record, its harsh rule in Tibet and its friendly ties with Sudan scuffled with police and attempted to block the torch's passage.
"We received the emergency notice from the tourism bureau that, considering the safety of the torch, which will go to Mount Everest in May, agencies are not allowed to receive tourist groups and foreign tourists," said an employee at the Tibet China Youth Travel Service in Lhasa, who identified himself by his surname, Dong.
Dong said the government's decision will hurt Tibet's tourism industry, which accounts for a major portion of the local economy. Last May, his company arranged trips for 3,000 4,000 foreign tourists.
"This decision will affect our business, even the Chinese tourism market, a lot," he said.
A man who answered the phone at the Tibetan Tourism Bureau confirmed that the decision to reopen Tibet on May 1 had been changed. He refused to give his name.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday that the Tibetan government is working "to bring back the law and order." Yu added that "special measures are taken for special circumstances."
The torch relay is aimed at showcasing China's rising economic and political power. Instead, protesters have used it as a backdrop for criticizing China for its March crackdown on anti-government demonstrations in Tibet and nearby provinces.
Rallies have also been held elsewhere to protest the crackdown. On Thursday, thousands of Tibetans carried 154 shrouded effigies in New Delhi representing those they say were killed last month in Tibet. Chinese authorities say 22 people died in the riots.
China earlier this year banned mountaineering groups from getting permits to climb its side of Everest between March and June. It persuaded Nepal to enact a similar ban on the other side of the mountain.
The torch is to return to mainland China at the beginning of May and continue through dozens of Chinese cities, including Lhasa, in June. A side relay will take a second torch up Mount Everest in May.
Tibet's governor Champa Phuntsok said this week he had "no doubt" that Tibetan activists would seek to "create trouble" during the Tibet leg of the Olympic relay. China has repeatedly blamed the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, and his supporters for fomenting the unrest.
On Thursday, the Dalai Lama said he supports China's hosting of the Olympics, but insisted nobody had the right to tell protesters demanding freedom for Tibet "to shut up."