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Foreign countries must take steps to attract more Chinese tourists

By Kang Bing | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-10 06:48
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An Air China plane takes off from Beijing Daxing International Airport. [Photo by Zou Hong/]

When China lifted its pandemic prevention and control measures at the end of 2022, many expected Chinese tourists, having been confined to the country for almost three years, to swarm to foreign destinations, with some reputable research institutes saying 2023 could see the outbound tourism market recover to 90 percent of the pre-pandemic level in 2019 when 155 million Chinese people traveled abroad.

That prediction didn't come true.

Statistics released by the China Tourism Academy in March show Chinese people made only 87 million trips abroad last year, which is a mere 56 percent of the 2019 level. However, the CTA said the number could reach 130 million in 2024, and I hope the experts are right this time, though I am a bit pessimistic.

Traveling abroad seems to have become more difficult than before for the Chinese people because of the rising requirements by some embassies, shortage of international flights and high ticket prices. Many embassies still require visa applicants to make online appointments three months in advance. And even after following all the procedures and fulfilling all the requirements, one may still have to spend some sleepless nights waiting for the visa, and get it, if at all, just a couple of days before departure.

Some embassies attribute the delay to a shortage of workers, many of whom were dismissed during the pandemic. The excuse sounds reasonable, because we don't have much say in convincing a host to extend an invitation to visit his or her home. All we can do is either fulfill the host's requirements or abandon the idea of paying a visit. Many people may choose the latter.

A Chinese person planning to visit another country may find airline tickets cost much more than before, not least because international airlines stopped all normal passenger flights during the almost three-year pandemic and are still on way to recovery. According to authorities, only 4,782 international flights operated between China and other countries and regions a week last year, making up only 62.8 percent of the pre-pandemic level, with less than one-third being operated by foreign airlines.

The shortage of flights means travelers can no longer avail of discount tickets. And while tourists complain about expensive tickets, airlines argue there are not enough travelers to operate more flights.

Since my wife and I decided to make an overseas trip next month, we looked at all the possible destinations including Nordic, Eastern European or African countries, or the United States or Australia. We realized that almost all travel packages cost 30-40 percent more than in 2019, and higher airfare and rising consumer prices are responsible for the drastic increase in travel costs. Ultimately, we booked tickets and hotels for a 20-day tour of Turkiye largely because we got a good price for return flights.

Given the above reasons, a potential Chinese tourist may think twice before embarking on a tour.

Being confined within the country for the past few years, many potential outbound tourists have turned their eyes to domestic attractions. The Chinese people made nearly 5 billion domestic tourist trips last year, helping the country's aviation industry to recover to its peak level. The number is expected to exceed 6 billion this year.

Another factor that may prevent the outbound tourist market from fully recovering is probably people's changing attitude toward spending money. With both the domestic and global economies yet to recover to their pre-pandemic peak levels, people have become cautious about lightening their wallets, with overseas tours being the first to be deleted from a family's budget.

This makes it important for foreign countries to take measures to attract more tourists from China — the world's biggest source of tourists. In fact, an increasing number of countries are offering Chinese nationals visa-free travel, and some have simplified procedures, offering visa on arrival or e-visas. And countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore are attracting lots of Chinese tourists thanks to their special promotions.

Tourists, be they Chinese or foreign nationals, tend to visit destinations that offer magnificent sights, reasonable prices, convenience of travel, and safety and security. More importantly, tourists visit places where they feel they are welcome.

The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.

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