Amid China’s reopening to foreign visitors and President Xi Jinping’s push for increased tourism in occupied East Turkestan (referred to as Xinjiang by China), Uyghur Muslims are intensifying their calls for Western tourism companies to cease offering package holidays in the region, amid an ongoing genocide against the indigenous Muslim inhabitants. 
Leading the way, a recently released report by the US-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) has sounded the alarm, stating that Western tourism in East Turkestan risks inadvertently supporting genocidal policies by the Chinese government that are erasing the Uyghur Islamic identity.
As Dr. Henryk Szadziewski, Director of Research at the UHRP, states in the paper’s introduction,
“Uyghur families have been torn apart by internment, imprisonment, forced labour programs, and enforced disappearances. Uyghur communities have been decimated by the destruction of their religion, language, and cultural heritage. Due to birth prevention policies targeting Uyghur women, the Uyghur Tribunal found that the Chinese government is committing torture, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
“Travel to places of human tragedy is known as ‘dark’ or ‘disaster’ tourism. Visiting sites of ethnic cleansing, natural disasters, or war as a tourist is antithetical to the common idea of travel for leisure. Individuals who visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre in Cambodia may go with the intention of internalising the lesson of ‘never again’.
“However, the travel experience to East Turkestan, as presented in the literature of international travel companies, is not about learning such lessons.” 
Despite the glaring evidence of genocide against Uyghur Muslims, China typically maintains that its policies are essential for “countering extremism” and “alleviating poverty”.
Complicity of Western travel agents
The UHRP report has scrutinised tour packages offered by several travel companies based in Western countries.
Some of these packages were actively advertising tours for the current and upcoming years, while others had not operated since before the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw China’s borders closed to tourists.
Disturbing add-ons to certain packages
Most of these package holidays — often marketed as Silk Road tours — include stops in East Turkestani cities such as Turpan, Kashgar, and Ürümqi.
Some of the tours have offered experiences that also raise concerns, including visits to the Xinjiang Regional Museum, which UHRP asserts as contributing to the erasure of Uyghur history, culture, and identity, as well as the historic Id Kah mosque, which research groups warn has largely become off-limits to Uyghurs.
Meet a Uyghur family while vacationing in East Turkestan?
Alarmingly, certain tours, such as one offered by Goway Travel, promised participants the opportunity to meet with a local Uyghur family.
UHRP argues that it is impossible for Uyghur families to openly refuse such visits, highlighting the incongruity of overseas visitors engaging in such visits while Uyghurs are themselves unable to host their own family members visiting from elsewhere.
As the paper notes,
“In the context of an ongoing genocide, there is no possibility that Uyghur families can freely decline home visits from tourists, which could amount to accusations of extremism.
“It is perverse that overseas visitors on organised tours should visit Uyghur homes when Uyghur families cannot host their own family members who live abroad.” 
Additionally, the presence of outsiders in Uyghur homes has long been identified as a key tactic in the surveillance and exploitation of the persecuted ethnic group, especially in light of the 2017 policy of stationing Han Chinese officials in Uyghur households.
These officials — who forcibly marry Uyghur Muslim women while their husbands are detained in concentration camps — closely monitor Uyghurs’ daily lives, akin to the ever-watchful Big Brother from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984.
Travel into the heart of Chinese concentration camp-land
Some tours have even offered visits to Aksu, a region where human rights researchers have identified several detention centres.
Szadziewski, the author of the UHRP report, expressed serious concern.
“The optics of advertising and organising tours to the Uyghur region amid ongoing crimes against humanity are disastrous.” 
Unethical tourism lacking any semblance of standards
The debate surrounding tourism to troubled regions is ongoing within the travel sector and among tourists themselves.
While some operators and travellers argue for the importance of supporting local communities and providing external observation, the UHRP contends that tours to East Turkestan fall short of the laudable ethical standards and internal accountability mechanisms established by the global industry.
In addition, the UHRP report focuses, not on the general operation of travel companies but, on whether these companies conduct the necessary due diligence to meet industry standards.
By continuing to offer guided tours throughout East Turkestan, travel companies repeat and reinforce Chinese government narratives of an “exotic” destination for the purpose of tourist consumption.
“The tours amplify Chinese state narratives of Uyghurs as folkloric and lacking modernity. These narratives form part of the government developmentalist premise to ‘re-educate’ Uyghurs out of their Uyghurness and into a compliant, economically exploitable, population.
“The depiction of Uyghurs in the tourist literature aims to convey a sense of authenticity. However, given the simulacra presented at tourist sites, the lack of ability to speak to Uyghurs freely, and the prevalence of Chinese government propaganda on conditions in East Turkistan, tours to the region are inauthentic.” 
The promotion of tourist trips to East Turkestan while the Chinese regime is perpetrating genocide and religious persecution of the Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims raises strong ethical concerns.
Those Western companies that are promoting tourism to East Turkestan should carefully consider the implications of their actions. It has been proved again and again that no one can visit East Turkestan and speak to Uyghurs without the close surveillance and censorship of Chinese authorities.
Promoting tourist trips to a region where an active genocide, gross human rights abuses, and strict media censorship are going on only serves to whitewash China’s crimes and bolster its disinformation campaign. Moreover, while those travel agencies are promoting trips to East Turkestan, the Uyghurs in the diaspora are still not able to talk to their families back home, let alone visit East Turkestan.
Hence, it is crucial for those companies to be socially responsible in these situations. They should weigh the potential financial gains against their ethical responsibilities when they want to engage in business with genocidal regimes like China.
The ‘Sinicisation of Islam’
The release of the UHRP report coincides with President Xi’s late August visit to Ürümqi, during which he called for an increase in both domestic and international tourism to Xinjiang.
Simultaneously, the dictator urged officials to further promote the Sinicisation of Islam and to bring under control supposed “illegal religious activities”.
Rights groups have consistently found that many policies aimed at curbing such so-called “illegal religious activities” have resulted in the persecution of individuals for benign, traditional, and peaceful acts of religious observance, including studying the Qur’ān, observing the five daily prayers, maintaining beards, fasting in the holy month of Ramadan, and even eating halal food.
Simulacrum: replacing reality with a false representation
The UHRP report concludes that visitors to East Turkestan are exposed to only that which the Chinese government deems permissible.
The author warns that such use of “simulacra” is clearly going some way toward travel agencies being culpable for the oppression against the Uyghurs.
“The Uyghur identity on display in East Turkistan is that which has been permitted by the Chinese state.
“What the Chinese state has left of public expressions of Uyghur identity has remained for commodification and exploitation, not only by visitors on tours from overseas, but also domestic tourists.
“By visiting these simulacra of Uyghurness, the travel company and visitor on an organised tour are complicit in the denial of the Uyghur people to define their own identity.” 
Xi Jinping’s extreme obsession with Uyghur abuse
Under Xi, East Turkestan has witnessed a stringent crackdown against perceived political opposition and dissent.
Since rising to power in 2013, the so-called paramount leader has steadily grouped power within his orbit, while abolishing the system of checks and balances that were initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. 
- China’s obliteration of the Uyghurs’ last refuge: their home
- Uyghur Tribunal underway with bone-chilling survivor testimonies
- China’s war on Islam: Muslim women ‘forced to share beds’ with male officials
- Uyghur Muslims suffer forced sterilisation, abortions, and removal of wombs