Tibet has long been a desirable travel destination for people from China and elsewhere because of its unique natural environment and cultural characteristics. However, tourism development in Tibet has been hindered by its remote and inaccessible location. Travel to Tibet has increased substantially since the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway in July, raising new questions about tourism development, regional economic development, environmental protection, and the preservation of the Tibetan culture. A huge gap now exists between tourism demand and the available supply in terms of facilities, service quality, tourism planning, and experience and capability in tourism management.
As competition for tourists increases, destinations are challenged to differentiate and position themselves properly to attract more visitors. Therefore, understanding how tourists make destination choices is of critical importance to destination planners, managers, and marketers. The travel decision-making process is a crucial part of the overall travel process, which comprises pre-travel, on-site, and post-travel facets. It involves decisions on whether to go and where to go, leading to actual travel to certain destinations. Choice of travel destination is of primary concern for destination managers and tourism planners and is also the subject of tourism research.
Past studies have enhanced the understanding of tourists’ decision-making behaviors, and can be used to identify and prioritize the factors influencing the destination selection process. Furthermore, the interrelations between tourists’ socio-demographic characteristics, their motivations, and their destination preferences can be measured, with practical implications for destination planning, development, and marketing.
Transportation provides the essential link between tourists’ origins and destination areas, facilitating the movements of travelers with diverse purposes. It also is an integral part of the overall travel experience (Lamb and Davidson. The actual transportation vehicle provides a context and a controlled environment for tourists’ travel between destinations and attractions (Page 2005). Although transportation can act as a main focus of the tourists’ experiences, it is usually considered a supportive element that is less important than the destination attributes within the overall travel experience.
Limited research has concentrated on the importance of the transportation experience in tourism, especially in comparison with the destination experience, or on the role of the journey in tourists’ destination choices. Therefore, the relationships between transportation and overall tourist experience, the factors influencing transportation experiences, and the effects of the transportation experience on the overall travel experience need to be further investigated.
Although tourist destination choice has been extensively studied, few researchers have compared the destination choice preferences of pre-trip and post-trip tourists. Furthermore, in this study, a wide range of factors drawn from the literature is addressed, including socio-demographic variables, previous travel experience (first-time or repeat visitor), destination familiarity, expectations and level of satisfaction, and motivations (push and pull factors). This is the first study to focus on the train journey to Tibet from the travelers’ perspective. The recent opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway provides the opportunity to analyze how the railway impacts tourism development in Tibet and travelers’ decisions to visit Tibet, and to examine the relative importance of the train journey in comparison with the destination.