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Opinion: Why are tourists not returning to mainland China?

“Analysts and industry figures attributed the poor figures to the lasting damage from the pandemic as well as China’s negative global image and loss of business confidence amid geopolitical tensions,” explained a September 3 South China Morning Post article.

In that article, Liu Xiangyan, an associate researcher with the International Tourism Institute at the China Tourism Academy, said, “some of the reasons holding people back from going to China may include the faster recovery of tourism industries in parts of Asia that reopened earlier plus lower costs in some Southeast Asian countries”.

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A Post opinion piece published on August 29 told us that, “Mainland industry practitioners have attributed the decline to the lack of international flights, partly as a result of Russian airspace being closed to Western airlines because of the Ukraine war.

Xiao Qianhui, chairman of the semi-official China Smart Tourism Association, had also referenced the growing animosity between China and the West.

“He pointed out that not only has the number of foreign tourists dropped, the composition of those visiting has greatly changed,” the opinion piece stated.

“The number of visitors with much stronger spending power – from places such as Europe, the United States, Japan and South Korea – have dropped significantly, and have been replaced instead by people from places with less economic clout such as Russia, Mongolia, Myanmar and Vietnam.”

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North Americans, specifically, are having to contend not just with geopolitical concerns, but also flights that are expensive and hard to find.

Just 18 flights a week currently carry passengers each way between the US and mainland China, and although the two countries have agreed to increase that number to 24 by the end of October, “Previously, the number of weekly flights between the two was 340,” reports Time magazine.

And prices are up not just because of the lack of supply but also because many Western airlines are now having to pay for the extra fuel needed to skirt around Russian airspace.

The Wall Street Journal spoke with one US agency that used to send as many as 1,500 tourists a year to mainland China but has not had a single request since the start of the pandemic.

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Meanwhile Brett Mitchell, at Intrepid Travel, an Australian company that runs group tours worldwide, told the Post that the firm’s mainland China bookings this year were nearly 90 per cent down from those in 2019. He said only 130 people booked trips to China this year compared with more than 1,000 four years ago.

So, when will “normality” resume?

“Chinese cross-border travel, defined as people coming and going, could get back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2024 and then steadily grow from there,” the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) CEO Julia Simpson told Bloomberg. And the China Tourism Academy’s Liu predicts that it could take another three years for visitor numbers to reach their pre-pandemic levels.

More widely, the WTTC predicts that by 2033, travel will have become a US$15.5 trillion industry, accounting for more than 11.6 per cent of the global economy (a 50 per cent increase over its US$10 trillion value in 2019).

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But how can anyone know, really? Our known unknowns appear to be increasingly unknowable (and let’s not even contemplate the unknown unknowns): will China’s image improve or worsen? How long will the Ukraine war grind on for? Will it drag other countries into it? Will other wars break out? How will Pacific tensions develop? What will happen to the price of oil, and everything else?

And then there’s the big one: what climate futurist Alex Steffen describes as the discontinuity of climate breakdown.

In 2022, Steffen explained to The New York Times magazine: “Discontinuity is a moment where the experience and expertise you’ve built up over time cease to work.”

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In other words, as the climate destabilises, the prediction models no longer apply.

“It is extremely stressful, emotionally, to go through a process of understanding the world as we thought it was, is no longer there,” he said.

Even as climate records are regularly shattered, it seems likely mainland China’s inbound tourism industry will revive to some extent, but the only forecast we’re prepared to commit to is that forecasting will become ever more unreliable.

Taiwan’s hotel prices holding back tourist rebound

Taiwan is having its own problems with bringing back tourists, not least because of the price of hotel accommodation.

“From January to July, the number of visitors was just around half the number of local tourists heading abroad,” according to a recent TaiwanPlus News video report, which explained that, for various reasons, the island’s main source markets – mainland China, Japan and South Korea – aren’t biting.

A surge in room rates could be keeping tourists away from Taiwan. Picture: Getty Images

One of those reasons was outlined in a September 6 press release from Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, which revealed that the average daily rate in hotels licensed for tourists during the first half of 2023 had risen to NT$4,618 (US$143), an increase of NT$572 (14.14 per cent) from 2022.

One Taiwan-based commenter on a recent thread on X (née Twitter) summed up the general feeling.

“This year is the last time I invite friends and family here. Hotels are basically gouging the market and ruining tourism. Likewise, me and my wife can’t justify s*** hotels at 4k a night when it costs 2k for a high end hotel in Thailand.”


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