By Dr. Deyu Wang & Anna Yupeng Chen

Chinese tourists are one of the most widely travelled groups in the world and China has taken initiatives to promote tourism like granting ‘Approved Destination Status’ (ADS) to friendly nations, promotion of ‘Red Tourism’, ‘World Tourism Alliance’ etc. Besides, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Belt & Road Initiative(BRI) are also platforms for the promotion of tourism. While South East Asia, Europe and US have been the most popular destinations on their itinerary, the last decade has witnessed an unprecedented rise in the number of Chinese tourists visiting South Asian countries- Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, etc.

As per World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2007, few Chinese tourists were visiting South Asia, concentrated mainly in the Maldives and Nepal (42% and 32% respectively). In the same year, the number of Indian tourists was significantly more in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. However, by 2018, the figures reflected different picture. Between 2007 and 2018, Chinese tourist arrivals rose by 687% in Nepal and 462% in Nepal. In case of Sri Lanka, tourist arrivals from China increased from just about 10,000 in 2007 to almost 260,000 in 2018. This period also marked the beginning of Chinese investment in infrastructure in these countries, increased air connectivity and widening the scope of its BRI framework.

Nepali Tourism Board opened its website in the Chinese language. To attract Chinese tourists, cities like Thamel have signs for restaurants and guest houses in the Chinese language. Nepal has also granted visa-free access to Chinese tourists to encourage them to visit Nepal. China is also providing Chinese language training to tourism professionals in Nepal. Interestingly, to promote ‘Visit Nepal Year 2020’ initiative of the Nepalese government, China’s Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi posted her pictures on social media showcasing the beauty of the country.

In Pakistan, in the next stage of China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship Chinese project under BRI, tourism and people interaction are being targeted. Pakistan is selling Ghandhara Civilisation and beach destinations (of which Sindh province shares 350 kms and Balochistan segments 700 kms) along the Arabian Sea to the Chinese side. There are even reports that hotels may be developed in Gwadar by Chinese to promote it as an international destination. That the Gwadar port is fully under Chinese control will be the chief consideration of such projects. A popular Chinese strategy ‘Zero dollar tourism’ is being used in Pakistan. Under this, Chinese tourists buy tour packages from companies registered abroad but owned by Chinese nationals with little involvement from local businesses. The itinerary covers hotels, restaurants, and retail shops connected to the Chinese tour operators bringing little benefit to the native businesses. The payment for shopping etc. can also be done in Chinese currency or Chinese mobile payment system. So effectively, no revenues are earned by locals even though they host the Chinese travelers.

However, Chinese tourists are not always welcomed by the locals. Chinese entrepreneurs have often grabbed various business opportunities in setting up travel and tour businesses in these countries. In 2011, the Sri Lankan government sold a strategically important site, the Colombo beachfront property, to a Hong Kong holding company for $125 million.  Chinese nationals in Sri Lanka also operate illegal travel companies, gem shops, and guest houses depriving the locals of job opportunities. Besides, there also have been instances of Chinese workers and students working as tour guides in Sri Lanka leading to clashes between authorized tour guides of Sri Lanka and Chinese touts. In Nepal, out of 156 industries approved for foreign investment in tourism in the fiscal year 2017-18, 79 were from China, while only 10 were from India. Chinese tourists also insist on cashless payments through their mobile wallets which are not very welcome by small businesses. In Nepal, local traders had protested against Chinese digital payment app WeChat Pay and AN Pay which were unregistered resulting in loss of revenue to Nepal. The Nepalese government even banned their use but owing to hectic lobbying by those companies, the two apps again started functioning in February 2020 after getting permission from Nepal’s Central Bank. The locals rue that Chinese do not pay well and often insult the local workers.  Chinese visitors have also been caught engaged in wildlife trafficking and even spying activities.

Even in case of India, the largest country in the South Asian region, Chinese arrivals have grown in numbers. While India initiated e-visa for Chinese tourists in 2015, increase in Chinese companies setting up businesses to India may also be contributing to increased inbound travelers. There are also Chinese investors in India’s travel and tourism companies Make My Trip (Hong Kong based Ctrip) and Oyo Hotels (Didi Chuxing and China Lodging Group).

Thus China is slowly increasing its presence in the region and bringing in valuable foreign exchange to the countries. It is no coincidence that in these countries, Chinese investments in major infrastructure projects have also grown rapidly. This also provides them with a tool to extract retribution as it has already doing in other countries. During political disputes, China informally directs its travel agencies to curtail tours in the target nation. Chinese tourism in US has declined in the last two-three years as the government is discouraging visits owning to trade war.  Even Taiwan faced a significant decline in its revenues ever since pro-democracy leader Tsai Ing-wen became the president. After the clash between Chinese and Philippines ships over Scarbourough Shoal Islands in April 2012, many travel agencies of China suspended travel to the country. China hindered tourism flow to South Korea after the country decided to deploy US-based anti-missile system THAAD in 2016.

Chinese inflows will continue to increase in this region as the countries reportedly gain more from tourism exports to China than India. This is reflected in the average per capita spending capacity of Chinese and Indian tourists in 2018, at approx. $1850 and $960, respectively.