See this link for our most up-to-date info on the Tibetan travel restrictions.[UPDATE: 10 April 2012]
The Tibetan travel permits are currently only being issued to foreign groups of three or more travelers, and every member of the tour group must be either of the same nationality or part of one family. As traveling in Tibet can be an expensive trip (all foreigners are required to travel by private vehicle, with a personal guide/driver), it is common for solo- or duo-travelers to scour message boards for like-minded adventurers from all over the world to cut down the cost of a personal tour guide. This can still be done of course, but for now your travel buddies are limited by country of origin. This nationality/family based limitation is hopefully temporary (as it has been in years past), and as of now the restrictions are due to end 15 April 2012. It is also very possible they will be extended—we'll be sure to keep this post updated with the most recent information we have.>>>
30 March 2012:
Earlier this winter, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) was closed to foreign visitors while the province celebrated it's annual Politically-Sensitive-Anniversaries Holiday*, a yearly vacation from foreigners that is often cloaked in vague, contradictory statements. To my knowledge, this year's closure was not accompanied by any official explanation or press release from the relevant government organs; the information was disseminated by travel companies who had been instructed not to issue any Tibetan travel permits to foreigners between 20 Feb and 30 Mar 2012. In the last few days, it has been indicated that portions of the province will reopen to foreign guests at the Lhasa and most of the TAR (with the exception of Chamdo prefecture).
Since the closure, there has been much speculation on travel forums about whether or not April would actually see the region open to foreign travelers, and the lack of transparent discussion or official announcement about the conditions in Tibet has contributed to the uncertainty. The same uncertainty goes for the Tibetan regions of Sichuan and Qinghai, which have also seen intermittent travel restrictions—regions which, unlike the TAR, don't require a formal travel permit but have seen both an increased police presence and restrictions on foreign eyeballs—but about which no reliable travel-restriction information is consistently available. More on the current situation in Tibet after the jump....
On travel forums it is not uncommon to see individuals suggesting that the travel restrictions in Tibetan regions of China are not to be taken seriously, and that it is easy to enter and explore closed regions at your leisure. While that may or may not have been true years ago, it is no longer the case and do not imagine that you are somehow sneaky enough to do it. You are not. Entering closed regions as a kind of adventure tourism or amateur activism will only result in serious problems for you, and more importantly, the locals.
The last year has seen an alarmingly high number of self-immolations related to the Tibetan unrest (Sichuan and Qinghai, respectively), have been the most volatile, and there have been Labrang Monastery in Gansu. So while the "Tibetan problem" is indeed still a problem, the actual province of Tibet has been comparatively stable and will reopen to tourists in April. Reports indicate that the permit process will begin again on 2 April 2012, which means that the first wide-eyed foreign travelers should be stumbling into Lhasa and beyond the following week. Ctrip will resume tours in Lhasa on 15 April 2012.
So most of Tibet will again be the recipient of tourists seeking breathtaking vistas, rugged beauty and a unique, ancient culture. Eastern Tibet will remain off-limits to tourists, and regions of Sichuan and Qinghai continue to be under immense scrutiny and security, so those traveling in any Tibetan area should anticipate roadblocks and security checkpoints. Indeed, there are reports of even locals being turned away from Tongren, making it highly unlikely that any foreigners will be allowed to travel in the region if unrest persists. These sorts of closures cannot be anticipated, and therefore any travel plans should be made with room for flexibility.
The Tibetan unrest is an extremely sensitive subject and reports of the situation can conflict wildly. It is important to remember that however you feel—whoever you think will stand on the righteous side of history—exercise your best judgement and travel responsibly.
*This holiday has a number of names, including but not limited to: We're-Out-of-Hotels-Anyway Annual Celebration; Protection-of-Tibetan-Culture-from-Corrupting-Western-Influence Spring Break; Indeterminately-Long-Celebration-of-Politically-Sensitive-Anniversaries-and-Vacation-to-Protect-Tibetan-Culture Long Weekend; There-is-Nothing-Happening-Here Holiday; It's-Much-Too-Cold-For-Tourism Month-Long Week and more. Photo courtesy of tamioonews