China Renovates Dalai Lama's Palace for Tourists

China has completed a seven-year renovation of Tibet’s Potala Palace — home to the Dalai Lamas until the region’s current spiritual leader fled during an aborted uprising against Communist rule 50 years ago.

China says the project is part of its plan to promote Tibetan culture and language in the region as it develops its economy, of which tourism forms a major part. The renovation, which also repaired the Norbu Lingka, a summer palace for the Dalai Lamas, cost 300 million yuan ($43.9 million), according to a report Monday from the state-run news agency.

But many Tibetan exiles say the Himalayan region’s cultural heritage has been threatened by Beijing’s restrictions on the native Buddhist religion and the Tibetan language as well as a government-orchestrated mass migration of Han Chinese in the last three decades. A large number of monasteries and other artifacts also were destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, although the Potala was spared in the violence.

In March 2008, riots erupted in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, to protest Chinese rule. In response, Beijing poured troops into Tibetan areas and intensified its vilification of the Dalai Lama, accusing him of instigating the unrest.

The spiritual leader, who fled China in 1959 and now lives in exile in India, has said that restrictions on Tibet’s religious practices have resulted in a “cultural genocide.”

A ceremony was held Sunday on the square in front of the Potala — whose facade looms over the city of Lhasa — according to the Xinhua News Agency.

“The repairs to the three key cultural relics is an important part in the conservation of the Tibetan culture,” said Liu Yandong, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, who attended the ceremony.

More than 189,000 workers were involved, and the government also spent 94.74 million yuan ($13.9 million) repairing the Sagya Monastery, which houses classical Buddhist texts, Xinhua said.

Xinhua quoted a former director of the Potala’s administration office saying the palace could now accommodate 1,000 visitors a day.

The renovations are part of a 570 million yuan ($73 million) plan to promote tourism to Tibet, a mainstay of the region’s economy, and include the repair to 22 cultural sites.

Earlier this year China tightened restrictions on advertising and construction outside the palace, following calls from the United Nations to better preserve the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s natural setting.

Although palaces have existed on the grounds of the Potala since the seventh century, the current building dates from the rule of the fifth Dalai Lama, known as the “Great Fifth,” who started its construction in 1645. It was then used as living quarters and a winter palace by the Dalai Lamas.