Chinese Tourists Slow to Arrive, and Not in the Way We Know It

After a three-year hiatus, Chinese nationals can travel again, but the growth will be measured as a brand new version of Chinese visitors make their way to holiday spots
Tourists visit National Museum in Phnom Penh, January 13, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Tourists visit National Museum in Phnom Penh, January 13, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa

“It’s not like water flowing from the dam,” said Sinn Chansereyvutha, spokesman for the State Secretariat for Civil Aviation, in response to the anticipation of Chinese travellers flooding the region upon China’s border reopening.

“It is only January 10 or 11. Nothing has happened. In order to travel, we have to plan, buy tickets, book holidays, so we will know [and] that is a good sign, but we have not seen such speed or indicators that they will come to Cambodia.”

In a flurry of messages via Telegram, Chansereyvutha shared that it might be early days for Chinese visitors to arrive on the shores of Cambodia, as he has yet to receive any updates on new landing permits by Chinese airlines in the past few weeks.

He rued that Cambodia was not a priority destination for Chinese tourists in the region, unlike Thailand, which was one of the top holiday hotspots in Southeast Asia before the pandemic.

The Chinese prefer to go to the Middle East, Europe, Japan, South Korea or “somewhere there is snow at this time”. “So we are a third- or fourth-tier country on their list to visit.”

In 2019, Cambodia recorded 2.4 million Chinese arrivals, representing a third of the total tourists. Yet, this pales in comparison to Thailand and Vietnam, which welcomed 11.5 million and 5.8 million visitors, respectively.

This year, out of 4.6 million air passengers projected to arrive in Cambodia, Chinese visitors are expected to make up one million of the total estimate, nearly 10 times more than in 2022, Tourism Minister Thong Khon said.

In Southeast Asia, some 32 million Chinese visitors were recorded in 2019, according to risk intelligence company Rane Worldview. In that year, 155 million trips were made globally by Chinese nationals, Xinhua news agency wrote, quoting data by China Tourism Academy.

The trips saw outbound Chinese visitors spend a total of $133.8 billion on their travels.

With the removal of the Covid-19 barriers, including mandatory quarantine, by the Chinese government on January 8, travel sentiments have been reactivated.

In Thailand, a plane load of Chinese passengers were greeted with flowers and goody bags upon arrival by officials on January 8, the first day of the removal of Chinese travel restrictions, the Bangkok Post reported.

But, as Chansereyvutha expressed, outbound travel from China will be measured, even as some positive effects emerge, following the Chinese government’s announcement.

According to Norinda Khek, communications director of Cambodia Airports, Ruili Airlines is expected to restart regular flights between its home port Kunming in China and Sihanoukville on January 20.

Currently, six Chinese airlines operate return flights to Cambodia, but there have been no updates on landing permits, which is a permission to land in the respective airports.

In any case, more time will be needed to have a better assessment of the removal of China’s restrictions and the extent of the impacts of Chinese arrivals to Cambodia, Norinda said. “We’ll then see the dynamics between demands and offers [reflected by] seat capacity, flight frequency, et cetera,” he added.

Cambodia Airports, which is 70 percent-owned by Paris-based Vinci Airports SAS, saw passenger traffic increase 8.8 times to 2.4 million passengers in 2022 from 2021, though the figure was 80 percent down from 2019.

Commercial flight movement still has a long way to catch up to pre-pandemic days, having only recorded a 2.6-fold growth at 28,898 movements in 2022 from a relatively low base a year ago. It was down 75 percent compared to 2019, just prior to the pandemic.

In a statement on January 12, Vinci noted that traffic in Cambodian airports remains impacted by the low number of flights to and from China, but the restrictions rollback should benefit Asian airports. “Though the pace of that recovery remains unclear,” it added.

No enormous wave

Thus, the return of Chinese visitors in the travel market is not likely to “break the scale” in 2023, said Gary Bowerman, director of Check-in Asia, a travel consulting and consumer research firm, and co-author of the 2023 China Outbound Tourism Handbook.

“Three years is a long time to rebuild travel confidence. Of course, there will be early adopters, but the mass market will be slower to adjust,” he told Kiripost.

China’s outbound travel market is huge, with a spectrum ranging from backpackers to ultra-high-end luxury, and “everything else in between”.

Back in 2019, the market accounted for 20 percent of all international arrivals into Southeast Asia, said Kuala Lumpur-based industry analyst Hannah Pearson.

“If one were to consider what that means in terms of travel supply chain – hotels and operators, which rely on the Chinese market, Chinese speaking tour guides, airlines who pre-COVID had such huge flight capacity to China, and airports who rely on transit traffic from China - it’s easy to see why recovery has been so stunted in 2022,” she shared.

Which is why, she added, the return of Chinese travellers will “hopefully prove to be one of the missing pieces”, which will keep up the recovery momentum for tourism across the region.

Pearson, founder of Pear Anderson, a travel market consultant and researcher, said pent-up demand will be a driving force behind overseas travel after being closed for three years.

“However, we must also be realistic, and recognise that there will not be an enormous “wave” of leisure travellers on January 8, and that the volume of travel will take time to grow, just as it has across Southeast Asia after borders opened here in 2022,” she said in early January.

However, the movement of Chinese travellers might be stricken by entry requirements in several countries in the world, though not so much in Southeast Asia, although governments are monitoring the situation closely in China where the Kraken variant is sweeping through some cities.

Pearson said Beijing authorities have been critical of additional testing requirements imposed on Chinese travellers by destinations such as Japan, the US and the UK due to concerns over COVID cases and variants.

But Southeast Asia can turn these testing requirements imposed by other countries to their advantage.

“The majority of the region has declared that they will not enact special measures for Chinese travellers - and being so geographically close to China, with fewer visa requirements, the region could prove to be a popular choice.

“Already, many Chinese online travel agents have reported that Thailand and Singapore are top searched destinations since the reopening announcement,” she said.

Relearn, readapt

In Bangkok, where the Thai government made a last-minute revision to entry requirements for Chinese visitors by cancelling quarantine but requiring evidence of full vaccination, around 3,500 Chinese travellers were recorded on January 8.

The highest recipient of Chinese visitors in the Indochina region in 2019, Thailand anticipates five million in 2023, with 50,000 to 100,000 visitors arriving per month in the first quarter, Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) was quoted as saying by Malaysian news agency Bernama.

That number could rise three times in the later part of the year in Thailand, he said. Though a conservative projection, Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, TAT deputy governor for marketing communications, said five million Chinese visitors could generate a tourism revenue of 230 to 240 billion Thai baht.

Responding to questions via email, he told Kiripost that before the pandemic, the Thai tourism sector contributed to about 20 percent of the national gross domestic product (GDP).

“China contributed to almost 30 percent of the revenue generated from the international market. I believe that if the Chinese market bounces back, it will surely help with the growth of the country's GDP,” he said.

However, the return of the Chinese market after a three-year hiatus has reconfigured existing trends as a result of the pandemic, the threat of Kraken, a Covid-19 variant which is sweeping through China, and travel conditions imposed by several countries on Chinese arrivals.

China Outbound Tourism Research Institute founder and CEO Prof Wolfgang Georg Arlt, who wrote a handbook with Check-in Asia’s Bowerman on ‘88 Practical Ways to Prepare For The New Wave of Chinese Visitors’ in 2023, foresees “big changes” in the demand and expectations of Chinese outbound travellers.

For instance, there will be less shopping, more experience, adventure and fine dining, less mass-market package tours, more family trips, outdoor activities, self-drives and recreational vehicles, and more interest to discover new destinations, he cited.

The tourism industry has to “re-learn” and “re-adapt” to what Chinese outbound tourism is all about, Arlt said, adding that the key issue is that there are different market segments interested in different offerings.

By curating the right programmes to new market segments, new destinations have a “good chance” of getting a “bigger piece of the cake”.

Value for money is also among the new trends, a move away from the pre-pandemic days. when Chinese outbound tourism was “a lot about bragging power and social capital”.

“In the past it was about buying expensive goods and going to famous places. With the new frugality movement and lessons from the pandemic about how life can be fragile and short, doing meaningful things is becoming more important … not just how much you spend,” he said.

In Thailand, high spending free independent travellers (FIT) – singles or couples without children – who splurge on luxury accommodation and fine dining, as well as small families of five to 10 people, and Generation Z travellers, are likely to be early phase Chinese visitors.

Citing Thai Tourism and Sports Ministry data, TAT’s Chattan said Chinese FIT travellers spend around 55,000 THB per trip and stay for a length of six to seven days.

Increased outbound travel demand is expected mostly after Chinese New Year, from spring onwards, with the travel patterns depending on how China’s Civil Aviation Administration allocates international flight routes and volumes, Bowerman shared.

“Trusted destinations will be prioritised in the first months of reopening. So much has changed globally during the pandemic, but there are no new countries to choose from – so patterns of choice could be similar to the late 2010s,” he said.

Neither good nor bad

Still, with Covid-19 cases spiking in China, January and February will be difficult months, Bowerman felt, with the domestic repercussions “hard to foretell”.

“Once more Chinese infection data is sequenced, and if the results show no new variants, I would expect some countries to ease their testing requirements – but this may take a couple of months. Others, like the US, might keep such measures in place for longer,” he said.

The measures could dampen demand for travel to those countries initially, and for China it will be a diplomatic issue with likely retaliatory measures.

“These could include de-prioritising flight services to those markets in the early phase of recovery. Once Chinese travellers have a clearer picture about outbound flights and schedules, they will be able to make informed travel choices,” Bowerman felt.

That said, he does not see the new restrictions impacting the release of pent-up travel demand from China in 2023, unless a dangerous new variant is detected.

But this year remains a difficult year to forecast, particularly because the recovery in many parts of Asia was “fairly weak”.

While underlying air travel growth in Asia should strengthen steadily, it may not be up to the expected level.

“China is back in the game and Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong will scale back up. Those factors will create much-needed new demand within the region that was missing in 2022.

“The gloomy economic situation and threat of recession in the US and Europe will impact global travel, and could drag down airline revenues in the second and third quarters. Overall, a mixed picture once again,” he said.

Back in Cambodia, nearly half a million tourists visited various parts of the country in the first week of January, with 43,616 of them foreigners.

Din Somethearith, chairman of Cambodia Hotel Association, said the numbers have been growing since the ASEAN Summit in November. While the figure is not so good, it’s not too bad either, he opined.

“It’s helping us survive and move our business forward,” he said.

Chhay Sivlin, president of Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA), said her sector is upbeat as positive changes are being witnessed. “We have been receiving many quotation requests from our Chinese partners, signalling a rising demand by Chinese tourists.”

Although there has been little improvement in Chinese flights into the Kingdom since China reopened its borders, presumably due to the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations, Sivlin is assured that it will not be long before they start arriving in Cambodia.