Time still needed to draw international travelers back to China
By Li Xiaoyang  ·  2023-09-15  ·   Source: NO.38 SEPTEMBER 21, 2023
International tourists at a Beijing section of the Great Wall in 2019 (CNSPHOTO)

After adjusting its COVID-19 response measures in late 2022, China resumed granting tourist visas to international visitors on March 15. However, in the six months since then, the number of inbound tourists has no where near rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. While the number of visitors is growing, the usual scenes of international tourists gathering at China's tourist attractions have not yet been seen this year, even during peak seasons.

In an article, China's Latest Problem: People Don't Want to Go There, The Wall Street Journal said on August 3 that "Few international travelers are coming—another sign of decoupling between China and the West that could have negative repercussions for a long time." According to the report, the number of tourists visiting China from sources including the United States, European countries and Japan has dropped compared with pre-pandemic level.

Despite the slower-than-expected recovery, travel industry insiders in China are still optimistic. "I hope next year we will see inbound travel-related numbers that are more similar to pre-pandemic ones but it takes time to get used to the new normal situation," Bora Shnitman, Vice President of Destination Marketing at Beijing-based Dragon Trail International, an international destination marketing company, told Beijing Review.

Fewer international visitors

Since February this year, outbound group travel by Chinese tourists has gradually resumed, with 138 destinations having been approved as of August. Travelers from the Chinese mainland made 40.37 million outbound trips in the first half of this year, according to China Tourism Academy.

However, the same growth is not being seen in inbound tourism. Big cities in China, such as Beijing and Shanghai, have reported far fewer international visitors than prior to the pandemic. Data from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics shows that the number of inbound tourists to Beijing was only around 400,000 in the first half of this year, less than 11 percent of the annual total in 2019.

Brian Linden, owner of a boutique hotel in Yunnan Province in southwest China, is feeling the lack of tourists. Linden moved from the United States to China with his family in 2004 and established the Linden Center in Xizhou Township in Yunnan's Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. Before 2019, Yunnan attracted large numbers of international tourists with its natural scenery, minority ethnic culture and the relaxed lifestyle of the locals, and Linden's hotel was regularly full.

"In the past, nearly 75 percent of our guests came from outside China. That number has dropped to below 10 percent over the past three years," Linden told Beijing Review. Prior to the pandemic, he also organized education programs through which students, 90 percent of whom were international, visited Xizhou and the surrounding region to learn about China's rural areas. None of those programs have resumed since being halted in 2020.

"Because of geopolitical tension, many of the developed nations have taken an increasingly negative view of China," Linden said, adding this change in the attitudes, plus the fact that other nations in Asia are making it easier for international tourists to visit, has led to a number of tourists from developed countries removing China from their list of destinations and the trend cannot be reversed overnight.

Still an attractive destination

Are tourists no longer interested in China? The answer is absolutely not.

Many people overseas are learning about China through social media. Prior to and now after the pandemic, many international online influencers are sharing videos about traveling in China, attracting a great many fans curious about true stories of the country.

Travel with AK, a vlogger from India, has posted many videos of his travels in different regions of China, including Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. His videos of Xinjiang, released earlier this year, are particularly popular on the video-sharing platform YouTube, generating over 2 million views. Many viewers commented that the videos allow them to learn about a side of China different from their previous impressions.

"Mind blowing video of Urumqi (capital city of Xinjiang). I did not expect to see such prosperity there," YouTube user @syedfazalahmed4338 wrote. A viewer also noticed a female Uygur taxi driver working late in the video, commenting that "Advancement in China is not limited to infrastructure, but also the openness of the mindset."

The videos are changing some overseas audiences' views on China. "Didn't some Western media say that the Chinese Government has neglected and destroyed the cultural uniqueness of cities in Xinjiang? But what I see are clean cities and well-planned and developed infrastructure. Most importantly, I see happy people everywhere leading a normal life," @LordKarma101 posted.

Better services needed

According to Shnitman, the high price of flight tickets is also slowing the return of international tourists. "There's a big demand and not enough supply from airlines that fly between countries. The fuel costs are more expensive this year than before, which also pushes up flight ticket prices," he explained.

Some airlines have implemented local regulations limiting the number of flights to and from China, but Shnitman said he expects these regulations will be relaxed in the months to come, which will bring the price of tickets down later this year and early next year.

For international tourists, communication and payment are now major concerns in China, according to some tourists recently visiting China.

In July, Mika, in his 20s, who asked to be identified only by his first name, traveled from the Netherlands to China for the first time. He first visited Shanghai and then Chengdu in Sichuan Province, the city where his girlfriend is from. Mika said the process of getting a visa for China was quick, and that he was very impressed by the large variety of Chinese food and the fast delivery services, but payment was a challenge during his visit.

As digital payment has become increasingly accepted in China in recent years—for in-person payments as well as online—the use of cash, bank cards and other means of payment has decreased drastically. WeChat Pay, a feature inside the instant messaging app WeChat, and Alipay are now China's two major payment apps, run by tech giants Tencent and Alibaba, respectively.

In July, WeChat Pay and Alipay upgraded their services. According to the companies, visitors can now link their international credit cards, including those issued by Visa and Mastercard, to the apps and use their smartphones to pay. In the past, overseas tourists were unable to use these payment apps as doing so required opening a Chinese bank account, an option only open to Chinese citizens and residents.

"I had my credit card linked to WeChat Pay and Alipay and it worked perfectly at first. Then the apps suddenly stopped working. It is inconvenient if you don't have a Chinese phone number when signing up on some apps," Mika said.

Linden said China should make it easier for travelers to use digital payment apps. "Perhaps China could offer international tourists a free phone data package that would enable them to pay money to local banks and use WeChat Pay and Alipay," he suggested when discussing the difficulty of using cash.

Linden also called for a China railway pass for international visitors, like Japan's and Europe's, and suggested that large train stations should have a designated window to handle these travelers. "Few international visitors speak Chinese, so we need to manage those interactions with bilingual staff. China's travel industry could also highlight hotels where services using foreign languages are available," he said.

For independent travelers, taking taxis is now also a challenge in China. Shnitman noted ride-hailing platforms such as DiDi Chuxing or Amap are not yet adequately equipped to serve international visitors.

"The government needs to encourage the creation of more solutions, especially by the private sector, to make the experience of international travelers in China more smooth and convenient," Shnitman said.

(Print Edition Title: Warming the Welcome) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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