Chinese tourism is still far from having regained its former magnitude
Since January 8, the Chinese are again allowed to travel abroad. Beijing announced it on December 26, and in the days that followed, Qunar, one of China’s leading tourism agencies, saw an increase of around 850% in individuals seeking international flights, indicating obviously a real desire to travel.
But those searches didn’t translate to as many purchase confirmations. Around January 21, during the ten days off which inaugurated the Lunar New Year under the sign of the Rabbit, it was to China that the Chinese mainly and massively traveled. The objective of many city dwellers was to go to their province of origin in order to find more or less close relatives there.
Contrary to what many expected – or feared – there was therefore no rush of Chinese tourists to the West. In the past, many people spent New Year’s holidays in Asian countries. But this year, they were received very differently. Thailand is undoubtedly the country that has tried the most to reconnect with tourism from China.
In 2019, 11 of the 20 million tourists were Chinese. And this year, Beijing newspapers noted that on January 9, the Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Health welcomed Chinese tourists at Bangkok airport to whom they presented flowers and gift bags, under a welcome sign where was written “Three years already, we have been waiting for you for three years“. 300,000 Chinese visitors are expected during the first three months of 2023 in Thailand and no vaccination certificate is required of them.
Other countries, such as Singapore in Asia or, in Europe, Norway and Austria, have indicated that they are willing to receive Chinese visitors. But they only responded moderately to this invitation.
Elsewhere, mistrust is in order
In many other countries, it is above all the distrust of Chinese people potentially infected with Covid that dominates. In Malaysia, any traveler who comes from China must undergo a temperature check. Morocco seems to have the strictest regulations: the arrival on its soil of travelers from China is prohibited there. In Japan and South Korea, planes are only allowed at a few airports, and passengers must carry negative Covid tests. This obligation is in line with the regulations put in place in France, but also in the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, the United States and Australia.
In France, any passenger over the age of 11 on a plane coming from China must present a negative virus detection test less than forty-eight hours before boarding. Despite this, at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, random health checks are carried out and some are sometimes positive. Which, in the immediate term, limits French intentions to reopen to Chinese tourism. These checks were scheduled to end on January 31; they have been extended until February 15.
In any case, Chinese tourism is far from having regained its former magnitude. It developed in the early 2000s when nearly 10 million Chinese began to travel around the world. In 2019, they were 150 million. And of those who came to Europe, 2.2 million visited France. The benefits of their travels were estimated each year at around 3.5 billion euros, or 7% of France’s tourist receipts. But such international travel all but ceased in 2020 when China shut down due to a pandemic.
“There is currently a habit of not travelling”
Also, attentive observers of Chinese tourism endeavor to decipher the current developments. Sébastien Lion, vice-president of the French Institute for Tourism Development, publishes a weekly newsletter on Chinese tourism on LinkedIn. He believes that“there is currently a habit in China of not traveling. That’s what you have to relearn. And for that, start with the national. Especially since many Chinese who could travel the world are waiting first to see how the possibilities of getting around will evolve.
Those who, on the occasion of the New Year, went abroad, often did so to visit relatives who are settled there and whom they have not seen for three years. These movements are obviously not comparable to what happened before 2020. One reason for this decrease in stays abroad may be that many Chinese passports are no longer valid.
In 2019, around 140 million had an up-to-date travel document, or 10% of the Chinese population (in comparison, in the US the figure is 40% and in Britain 76%). But in China, it would seem that many passports expired during the three years that their holders could not travel. It is therefore possible that, for the New Year, Chinese candidates for travel did not leave the country because they could not present a valid passport.
A slow recovery in air traffic
The decline in Chinese international travel is causing Western airlines to not rush to restore cut flights between China and Europe or the United States. Before the health crisis, there were in particular, leaving from China or going there, up to thirty-two Air France flights per week. Since 2020, the company has only provided 5% of this traffic. It serves Tianjin, whose airport is close to Beijing, once a week. The crew did not descend and the plane continued towards Seoul.
Other destinations: Shanghai, twice a week, and Hong Kong, three times (from February 3, a third flight to Shanghai is planned). And Air France has announced that from 1er July, a daily flight will be offered to each of these three Chinese cities. Nothing is indicated, however, about the Paris-Canton or Paris-Wuhan flights, which were interrupted three years ago.
In Beijing, a new and vast airport was inaugurated in September 2019 by Xi Jinping. It hardly entered service when it was intended to welcome ever more foreign visitors at the same time as allowing more Chinese to fly to all kinds of countries. But, at the start of 2023, the rise of Chinese international tourism seems to be gradual.
For now, the country’s slowdown is worrying the Chinese and the government is looking to restore the path to growth. And a question arises: which category of the Chinese population will start traveling again?
Stay connected during the pandemic
In the ten years leading up to 2019, an evolution has clearly taken place. The proportion of group travel, especially popular with seniors, has fallen sharply. In Île-de-France, in 2018, it only represented 10% of tourists from China, while 54% of visitors were around 35 years old. This clientele is hyperconnected, prepares their trips on the internet and after discussions on social networks such as WeChat or Weibo, organizes their stays individually or as a family.
For this Chinese clientele, France, generally qualified as “romantic country”, has consistently been at the top of European countries to visit. Admittedly, in 2017, in Gonesse in Val-d’Oise, not far from Roissy airport, criminals robbed a group of Chinese in front of their hotel and this caused a stir in the Beijing media. But Paris has unmissable visits, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe; also the Louvre or Versailles, two buildings where, in 2020, Chinese television teams stationed in Paris produced programs of filmed visits. They were watched a lot on the Chinese net by those who could no longer leave their country.
All sorts of tourist destinations then began to be broadcast, with in particular in-depth visits to museums where the director did not fail to be interviewed. The objective being through streaming to maintain the link between potential tourists and distant places to visit. Moreover, most of the time, access to the program was accompanied by the purchase of tickets to be used by 2025. The Chinese platform Alibaba seems to have had real success with such proposals, often coupled with possibilities purchase of toothpaste or lipstick, in perfect e-commerce logic. Many other museums such as the British Museum have taken similar steps which have allowed them to maintain contact with the Chinese public.
But other sites in France were favored by the Chinese. In the regions, Chambord established a partnership with the Summer Palace in 2015, near Beijing. Since then, Chinese tourists have regularly descended from their buses to be photographed in front of the castle – but often without entering it. Other places were particularly popular, such as Mont-Saint-Michel or the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The lavender fields in Provence, mainly on the Valensole plateau, have also been very popular since a Chinese television series was filmed there in 2014 and was watched daily by around 200 million viewers. Until 2019, the operators of these agricultural areas showed their farms to these visitors and sold them derivative products with the help of the Chinese guides they had hired.
The question is now for the world of tourism – especially French – to know when Chinese tourists will again travel the planet. Sébastien Lion contemplates an answer: “My prediction is that at the latest, Chinese tourists will return in the summer of 2024, for the Olympic Games in France. The question is how many will travel before that. What will be the percentage compared to 2019? That year, Chinese tourism accounted for 15% of the sector’s turnover on the planet, or 250 billion dollars. The influence of the Chinese on international tourism was growing. It may resume if, in the years to come, the Chinese step up the pace of their stays outside China.