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Farewell, Chinese Tourist. We’ll Miss Each Other.

Farewell, Chinese Tourist. We’ll Miss Each Other.

Monday, 23 May, 2022 - 04:15

It's been more than two years since countries started closing their borders to visitors to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Now China, facing its worst outbreak of the pandemic, is trying a new tactic.

Henceforth, “unnecessary” overseas travel by Chinese citizens will also be restricted, supposedly to keep residents from bringing the virus home from abroad. The policy, announced earlier this month, will also make it harder to get passports and other travel documents.

It's possible that these are temporary measures to be lifted when China decides that Covid is no longer a threat. The regulations don't say. But China's recent decision to cancel international sporting events scheduled for mid-2023 implies that it won't be next year. The government's growing concern about talent and capital fleeing China suggests that the regulations, in some form, will probably last much longer and become a kind of new, restricted normal.

The consequences for China and the world, would be profound. Before the pandemic, tourism and travel accounted for over 10% of global gross domestic product, and no country sent more travelers abroad than China. A long-term decline would devastate businesses and economies that have come to depend upon them. A younger, curious Chinese generation raised on travel would be grounded, its expectations and living standards reduced.

Last century’s political upheaval that birthed modern China did not provide many opportunities for international travel. Most Chinese were poor, and an interest in visiting or knowing foreign countries and cultures was a politically suspect pastime. That began to change in the 1980s as China opened to business travel and, by the end of the decade, tourism.

But concern about foreign influences never totally subsided. So the Chinese authorities established a system whereby it licenses overseas tourism in controlled groups to approved destinations.

Over the next three decades, Chinese outbound tourism grew with the economy. In 2019, Chinese took 154 million foreign trips — a 3.3% boost over 2018. US travelers took just under 100 million. Chinese were also top spenders, averaging $1,852 for every trip in 2018. US travelers, by contrast, spent $1,363. Those visitors and their money transformed entire destinations. Mandarin Chinese signs and announcements are customary at international airports. Chinese restaurants and menus are common at hotels and casinos in destinations like Las Vegas. Tourist meccas from Salzburg, Austria to Phuket, Thailand have had to adjust how they manage crowds and seasons to account for the influx of Chinese holidaymakers.

The tourists have also changed. Where once a trip abroad was an elite, once-in-a-lifetime luxury, it became an expected and affordable perk of middle-class Chinese life. Educated Chinese, especially those born in the 1990s and later and who had never known a travel restriction, came to view tourism as an essential component of their lifestyles and self-esteem. In urban China, where housing prices continue to spiral out of reach for twentysomethings stuck in grinding jobs, an overseas escape was an accessible aspiration.

Covid disrupted the boom. In 2021, a mere 8.5 million outbound travelers left China — down more than 95% from the pre-pandemic flood. The $255 billion those travelers spent abroad in 2019 has largely disappeared, leaving tourism-dependent economies bereft. In 2021, Thailand, which relied on tourism for around 20% of its GDP before Covid, experienced its largest economic contraction since the Asian financial crisis of 1997. In tropical Phuket, long popular with Chinese tourists, 70% of the hotels are closed. Globally, destinations, hotels, airlines and other travel services are feeling similar pain, and wondering when, if ever, China will let its tourists out again.

Last week's outbound travel curbs don't provide much reason for hope. For two years, Chinese propagandists have preached the foreign origins of Covid, highlighting cases that it claims were imported by travelers and even blaming international mail for spreading the virus (an accusation with no basis in science). A permanent curb on passport issuance and outbound travel fits comfortably into a xenophobic policy framework that seeks to deter foreign influence, especially on curious, independent-minded youth. It also surely frustrates the growing numbers of Chinese citizens interested in emigrating due to China's Covid lockdowns.

On Chinese social media, news of the outbound restrictions has been greeted with pessimism and censorship. But even if the curbs eventually expire — say, at the end of 2023 — the damage will still be severe. International tourist destinations will face billions of dollars in losses while young Chinese, buffeted and depressed by endless lockdowns and shrinking horizons, will need to come to terms with another bleak year or two without the freedom of movement they had come to enjoy.


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