Zhang Yongze, Tibet's environmental protection chief gives the following reasons:
"We have a responsibility to ensure the water source of the river flowing from Everest to the sea is clean, our target is to keep even more people from abusing Mount Everest."
The western world however, remains unconvinced. This environmental turn-around comes just after the building of a 65 mile tarmac road to Everest base-camp. The road was built to ease the access of the Olympic torch relay, that recently summited Everest. The Chinese government says it also hopes it will ease access for climbers and tourists to the mountain.
"The highway will become the major route for tourists and mountaineers who are crowding onto Mount Qomolangma in ever larger numbers," it said, referring to the mountain by its local name.
The decision to build the road came despite open criticism on environmental grounds. The Free Tibet Campaign have other ideas about the significance of the road, maintaining it has nothing to do with improving accessibility for tourists, but is a means of asserting control over the region.
At the time of the road's construction a Free Tibet Campaign spokesman said: "The permanent metalled road on Mount Qomolangma is an attempt to underscore Beijing's tenuous claims to sovereignty over Tibet. To achieve this aim China will sadly scar irreparably one of the world's most beautiful landscapes as well as tarnishing a mountain sacred not only to Tibetans but to many people living in the Himalayan region."
The building of the road and the government statement suggesting that the road will be “the major route for tourists and mountaineers” flies in the face of the recent closure plans for 2009. However, given the recent fury from the Chinese over the foreign coverage of the riots in Tibet, and the poor reception of the Olympic torch relay in Europe, it isn't difficult to imagine why a severe reduction of entry visas is now on the cards for foreign visitors and press in 2009.
A source from a major UK expedition organisation gives his take on the situation:
“The Chinese say they're welcoming climbers this autumn (for example, to the popular 8000m peak, Cho Oyu), but state you can have no more than two nationalities on a permit. You can't therefore have mixed nationality teams + Nepalese Sherpas. They're saying they may not grant individuals visas anyway, and are talking about a week-long visa process in Kathmandu. A lot of the commercial expedition organisers are now climbing Manaslu in Nepal (the world's 8th highest mountain) instead of Cho Oyu, because they're tired of being messed about by the Chinese. The Chinese seem to be doing everything to keep people out of Tibet, without actually banning entry. Sources inside Tibet are talking about a big crackdown on Tibetans after the games. This recent press release about a clean up operation on the North side of Everest is clearly propaganda. There have been a number of clean up expeditions on the Nepalese side of the Everest. Why would you need to close the mountain? It's obviously a whitewash, but sadly some naive media sources in the outdoor world seem to have fallen for it.”
What is telling is that no outside organisations such as international mountaineering associations or environmental groups have been informed or consulted on the clean-up. There have been multiple clean-up operations organised on both sides of the mountain in the past, although China have never officially been involved. Tonnes of waste have been removed from the mountain by volunteers, who had no need to close the mountain – in fact it needed to be open for them to arrange permits. Closing the mountain will only reduce the amount of experienced volunteer helpers on hand to assist in the clean-up.
It is true that waste is a major issue in the area and of particular concern is the fact that in the freezing temperatures human excrement never breaks down. It is easy to imagine how this could lead to widespread contamination of river water from melting glaciers.
China would do well to publicise any actual plans for the 'clean-up' to the international climbing community and liaise with the various volunteer groups who have experience in this field. More stringent policy regarding waste management for climbers is an essential step forward, but a complete shut down of Tibet, at a time of a huge increase in Chinese nationalism, is pulling the wool over no one's eyes.