These numbers are all over state media, and regularly repeated by officials.
That’s an awful lot of people coming into a region whose permanent population is just 3.2 million. Too many, say critics who argue that Tibetan culture and its holy sites are being overwhelmed by ethnic Han tourists from the rest of China.
But hang on a minute: Look a little more closely, and the numbers just don’t add up.
Twenty-three million people would equate to something like 63,000 people arriving every day on average — and when you consider that the majority of tourists arrive during the summer months, peak arrivals would be much higher.
There are just not even enough planes, trains and buses to bring in that many people, let alone that many beds in the Tibetan capital Lhasa.
The daily limit for tourist entries to the Potala Palace has been steadily raised from just 850 in 2003 to 5,000 now, but that would still leave an awful lot of people visiting Lhasa without seeing inside its most iconic landmark.
So what’s going on?
The Washington Post went back to tourism officials in Tibet, and this is what they told us.
The numbers actually reflect the number of person-visits. In other words, if someone visits three places in Tibet, such as Lhasa, Shigatse and Nyingchi, they will be counted three times.
“The places that a tourist went and spent money are all being counted,” said Wang Songping, deputy director of the Tibet Tourism Development Commission.
Alternatively, we were told that officials multiply the number of arrivals to Lhasa by a factor of 2.7 or 2.8, calculating “an average probability” to account for the fact that most people visit two or three places.
So can we just divide the official numbers by 2.75 to get a rough estimate of the number of people? Yes, we were told Wednesday. No, we were told when we called back Thursday for clarification: There is no way to estimate the number of individual tourists visiting Tibet, and this number is not directly measured.
“We do not have the numbers of tourists, and we cannot provide that,” Wang Songping said. “We count based on an average probability but not a number of tourists. You cannot divide 20 million people by 2.75, there is no calculation like that.”
Nevertheless, we did the math: 23 million, Wang’s projection for 2016, divided by 2.75 makes 8.4 million visitors expected this year.
Let’s take that as our baseline.
One Western expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of complicating his access to Tibet, said the figures have been notoriously inflated for years.
Visitor arrivals were massaged to meet official targets, and bolstered as political spin to enhance the reputation and perceived performance of the tourism industry and to ensure personal promotions within the competitive government hierarchy, he said.
The lack of transparency and accountability in the system might also cast doubt on other official data from Tibet, including the economic growth numbers, others experts say.
In 2010, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China also examined the Chinese government’s “contradictory” tourism data, noting that reported train arrivals in 2008 exceeded the railway’s carrying capacity.
It suggested another reason for the discrepancy: that China is systematically underreporting the number of ethnic Han migrant workers arriving in Lhasa every year, who could be outnumbering and overwhelming the number of Tibetans living in the capital.
“Chinese government data appears to underrepresent the number of Han who are present in Tibetan autonomous areas, and to report statistics that are inconsistent with each other and with observations by Tibetan and foreign experts,” the report said.
Arrivals used to be compiled by counting every arrival in Lhasa by plane, train and bus, the Western expert said. Fly into Lhasa, take a bus to Shigatse, return to Lhasa and you'd be counted twice.
The only way to get an idea of the real numbers, the expert suggested, was to work out the carrying capacity of the planes and trains going into Tibet and extrapolate from there.
So that's what we did.
(And just to be clear, what follows is very much a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation).
An official at the Lhasa train station said six trains arrive every day, each with between 13 and 16 cars. In the peak season, they carry between 800 and 1,000 people; in the low season, between 300 and 500.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume half the year counts as peak season.
That makes — very roughly — 1.4 million people.
Now the planes. There are between 53 and 58 commercial passenger flights arriving in Lhasa every day, of various sizes, during the summer months, and about 18 or so a day in the winter. Let’s be generous and assume the flights are all full.
Looking at all the different sizes of planes that come in, we reckon that could yield another 2.2 million visitors.
Plane and train together: 3.6 million.
But not everyone who arrives by plane and train is a tourist. There will be business people and migrant workers, too. Indeed Chinese state media reports from 2006 and 2007 suggest about half, or more than half, of the train passengers were tourists. But let’s generously suggest that nowadays 80 percent of train and plane arrivals are tourists: that brings us down to about 3 million tourists a year.
Of course, not everyone arrives by plane and train, nor does everyone go to Lhasa.
Tibetans from neighboring provinces such as Qinghai and Sichuan probably arrive in significant numbers by bus to see the holy sites of Lhasa. They would be included in the data, officials said. (There are about 4.5 million Tibetans living in China outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), and some proportion will visit the TAR each year.)
There are visitors to places like Mount Kailash who might bypass Lhasa altogether. (Migrant workers from elsewhere in China also arrive by bus in significant numbers over the summer, although they really shouldn’t be counted as tourists.)
Put all that together, and given a huge amount of uncertainty over the estimates we have just provided, WorldViews submits that 8 million tourists this year seems just about possible, albeit something of a stretch. Twenty-three million does not.