(Kashgar) Folk costumes, souvenir photos and mutton skewers: In a postcard setting on the mythical ancient Silk Road, Chinese tourists are flocking to Xinjiang away from controversial Muslim internment centers.

In the old town of Kashgar, the cultural capital of the Uyghurs, smiling vendors grill tasty lamb skewers, a local specialty, while children play in the alleys.

“With its long history, rich culture and unique architecture, the Old City is the heart and soul of Kashgar,” enthused a Uyghur guide to a visibly smitten group of tourists.

The majority are Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China. Some human rights organizations accuse the authorities of repressing the indigenous Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.

After a series of bloody attacks attributed by Beijing to some Uyghurs in this vast border territory of Central Asia, the authorities have been imposing draconian measures there for more than a decade in the name of anti-terrorism.

China is suspected of having interned in “re-education camps” at least a million people, mostly Muslims, there, according to organisations. Beijing denies this figure and speaks of “vocational training centers” intended to fight against Islamist radicalization.

This does not prevent Xinjiang, a land of mixed populations and renowned for its heritage and natural spaces, from wanting to attract tourists, thanks to a marked improvement in security conditions.

In Kashgar, change of scenery guaranteed. Dozens of shops offer tourists the opportunity to immortalize their stay with photos in traditional local dress.

Many travel agencies also offer traditional dance and song performances, a classic on tourist routes.

“Many tourists like it here so much that they come back, start businesses […] and settle in with other minorities like a big family,” insists the guide, using an expression regularly used by the authorities to praise the multiculturalism of the region.

Words that contrast with the field: several years ago, local authorities banned Uyghur women from wearing the Islamic veil and men from growing beards.

As for Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar, where thousands of traders once sold fabrics, spices and other wares in a typical Central Asian atmosphere, it was razed last year.

The government has long considered tourism as a way to develop Xinjiang, a region rich in resources but historically less advanced than the rest of China due in particular to its geographical location.

The local Tourism Bureau plans to invest more than 700 million yuan (C$130 million) this year to bring in tourists. That’s more than double compared to 2019.

Across Xinjiang, new projects are underway whether for luxury hotels, campsites or parks.

According to People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper, 12.6 billion yuan ($2.3 billion) in deals have been signed by major Western hotel brands, such as Hilton, Sheraton and InterContinental.

Tourism also allows Beijing to respond to criticism of its alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang.

“Do people look downtrodden? Does the city look like an open-air prison as claimed by the United States? “, pretended to wonder in July about X a journalist from a Chinese state media, filmed with residents of Kashgar dancing.

Away from the tourist trails, however, an AFP team saw a sign in July in a cemetery in Yengisar prohibiting the conduct of “religious activities” within the compound.

Kneeling, prostrating or praying on your knees with palms facing up are among the prohibited gestures, according to drawings that detail bans on Muslim practices.

Some restrictions are also decreed for followers of traditional Chinese religion, but offerings and discreet ceremonies remain possible.

In the vicinity of Kashgar, a dozen mosques visited by AFP were closed or in a state of abandonment.

Some seem to have had their minarets removed. Many, on the other hand, carry banners with the slogan “love the country, love the Party”.

On a Friday, a holy day in the Muslim world, no more than 20 Uyghurs, mostly elderly, are seen in the iconic Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, the largest in China, where tourists are much more numerous.

That day, three other nearby mosques were closed.

Closures of places of worship in Xinjiang were “unnecessary until the recent crackdown” that began in 2017, historian Rian Thum of the University of Manchester in the UK told AFP.

Now, “the destruction of religious sites […] is part of a larger set of policies that are transforming the landscape and disconnecting Uyghur culture” from Xinjiang, says this Uyghur expert.

It is in the outskirts of Kashgar, where most of the alleged internment camps are located, that we find the clearest traces of Beijing’s policies.

While some seem abandoned or converted, others still seem operational. And they embarrass the authorities when discovered.

“Don’t take pictures!” exclaims in an unmarked car following an unidentified woman. “It’s not allowed here. »