The unstoppable rise of Chinese tourists around the world is reshaping the way we pay for things and how travel packages are marketed and executed, but the billion-dollar industry has some observers concerned.

Key points:

  • The annual number of Chinese travellers is forecast to grow to 400 million by 2030
  • Chinese tourists’ travel spending can benefit local economies — but analysts argue it can also be used as “global leverage” by the Chinese Government
  • Beijing has been known to “wield the tourism card” and punish countries it has differences with by restricting citizens from travelling to those places

In 2017, there were 145 million Chinese tourists who travelled overseas, bringing in a total of $US1.6 trillion ($2.1 trillion) revenue globally, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute.

The annual number of Chinese travellers is forecast to continue to grow with overseas trips expected to almost triple to 400 million by 2030.

Chinese tourists account for 21 per cent of global travel spending this year so far, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.

These numbers can greatly benefit a local economy, but analysts argue it can also be used by the Chinese Government as “global leverage”.

University of Melbourne expert on Chinese foreign relations, Sow Keat Tok, said this power has been used by Beijing to rapidly generate “hostage situations” with countries it has political or diplomatic differences with — showing China’s “willingness to wield the tourism card”.

“Beijing was able to mobilise its population to its cause and rapidly turn off the flow of outbound tourists … [devastating] the tourism industry of these destinations as a result,” Dr Tok said.

Countries including Palau, Taiwan, and South Korea have all felt China’s wrath in this way.

‘An increasingly useful stick to punish Chinese detractors’

China banned state-run package tours from visiting the Pacific island of Palau last year — possibly due to its diplomatic ties with Taiwan — leaving hotels empty and an airline in limbo.

In March 2017, Beijing placed an unofficial ban on Chinese tour groups to South Korea just months before the winter Olympics due to diplomatic tensions over the deployment of a US-backed anti-missile system.

As a result, the number of Chinese arrivals to the country has plummeted with the loss estimated at $9.6 billion last year.

“[Beijing] would probably have realised by now that this is an increasingly useful ‘stick’ [with which] to punish China detractors and extend China’s influence overseas,” Dr Tok said.

This form of boycott is not limited to diplomatic rows with other countries, but also extends to international companies such as retail giant Zara, hotel chain Marriott, and airlines Qantas and Delta — who have all had to apologise publicly for listing both Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries on their websites.

Many countries are trying to cash in on the lucrative market by tailoring their marketing strategies to Chinese tourists.

From buskers in Australia to vending machines in Japan and Canada, popular mobile payment platforms including Alipay and WeChat have moved beyond China’s national borders.

Combined, these apps have more than 1 billion monthly users.

International banks and companies are increasingly providing Chinese mobile payment platforms to accommodate the 65 per cent of Chinese tourists who used them overseas last year, according to global data measurement company Nielsen.

“We thus see more Chinese signage, services, and products catered to Chinese tourists in Melbourne and Sydney airports, for example,” Dr Tok said.

‘Zero-dollar’ travel packages labelled a ‘cartel crime’

While Chinese tourism can generate large economic gains, certain questionable practices have heavily impacted local economies.

Thailand and Indonesia are cracking down on “zero-dollar” tours — all-inclusive travel packages sold at bargain basement prices that usually sound too good to be true — which have allegedly exploited the lack of local regulations.

Mandatory shopping stops at stores and factories are built into the itinerary, and tourists are urged — and sometimes pressured — to make purchases at marked-up prices.

Many of the shops have large parking lots packed with buses, but the public are usually not welcome.

Travel packages from China to Bali can be bought for as cheaply as $60, which includes everything you need for a five-night stay, according to Indonesia’s National Organisation for Tours and Travel (ASITA).

“The shops are [illegally] owned by Chinese nationals; selling Chinese-produced items which are usually paid for with Alipay or WeChat,” said the head of ASITA Bali, I Ketut Ardana.

He said tour operators were able to sell travel packages cheaply because they work with Chinese operators in Bali who take them to Chinese-owned shops and tourist attractions that do not incur an entry fee.

The practice takes revenue away from the local economy because the income goes directly into the pockets of the people involved, he said.

“This is a cartel crime,” said Dewa Ayu Laksmi from the Balinese Department of Tourism.

Ms Laksmi said the Balinese Government is cracking down on the problem by shutting down illegal Chinese-operated shops — a move which has slashed the number of Chinese tourists by more than half over the past few months.

‘Subsidised’ holidays to show ‘China’s a glorious country’

In Melbourne, the General Manager of GrandCity Travel Group, Kevin Xu, said the agency would sell between 2,000 to 3,000 of “low-deal” tours every year.

“Although some local governments may subsidise the tour a little, most of the profits are from commissions from the shopping tours,” he said.

Australian National University anthropology lecturer, Yujie Zhu, said subsided tourist packages are mostly a Chinese phenomenon.

“The tour guide plays a very important role because they are the one doing all the work to promote the shops and take [the tourists] there,” he said.

“Sometimes they emotionally motivate these people to do it, sometimes they violently force them to buy it.

“I think that [method] started domestically, and then it grew and it snowballed [internationally].”

By Tasha Wibawa
ABC

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