Chinese tourists aren’t coming back anytime soon

On Jeju Island in South Korea, markets have darkened. In Bangkok, bored hawkers wait for customers who never come. In Bali, tour guides have been made redundant. In Paris and Rome, long lines of people with selfie sticks and sun hats are a distant memory.

It was supposed to be the year of returning from the trip. In Europe and Asia, many countries have reopened their airports and welcomed tourists. But they are faced with a new reality: Variants like Omicron are causing global panic, leading governments to close borders again, and their biggest spenders – Chinese tourists – are not coming back anytime soon.

As part of its efforts to maintain a zero Covid approach, China has announced that international flights will be kept at 2.2% of pre-Covid levels during the winter. Since August, it has almost entirely stopped issuing new passports and imposed a 14-day quarantine on all arrivals. Returning to China also requires mountains of paperwork and multiple Covid-19 tests.

A lot of people there decided to stay put.

No country has been more crucial for global travel over the past decade than China. Chinese tourists spent around $ 260 billion in 2019, surpassing all other nationalities. Their prolonged absence would mean that travel income is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels soon. Analysts say it could be up to two years before China fully reopens.

Shopping centers have emptied. The restaurants have closed. The hotels are deserted.

The slowdown particularly affects North and Southeast Asia. China is the number one source of tourism in Asia for several major cities, according to Nihat Ercan, manager of investment sales for Asia-Pacific at JLL Hotels & Hospitality, adviser to the hotel industry.

The recent Omicron discovery has prompted countries to reimpose travel restrictions or ban travelers altogether. This is another blow to an industry which, while still reeling from the lack of Chinese tourists, was just starting to recover.

At Bangkok’s Or Tor Kor fruit market, where masses of Chinese tourists once gathered around tables to eat durian, business has come to a standstill. Phakamon Thadawatthanachok, a durian vendor, said she keeps 300 to 400 kilograms of prickly fruits in stock and needs to restock them three to four times a week to meet demand. Now she had to take out a loan just to make ends meet.

“The loss of income is immeasurable, ”she said. “At the moment, we are only hanging on to the hope that it will one day improve.”

In Vietnam, the pandemic has caused more than 95% of tourism businesses to close or suspend their activities, according to the government.

Before the pandemic, Chinese visitors flocked to the resort towns of Da Nang and Nha Trang, accounting for around 32% of the total number of foreign tourists to the country.

“The service sector in this city is dead,” said Truong Thiet Vu, director of a travel agency in Nha Trang which is now closed.

On the Indonesian island of Bali, many tourist agencies have either sold their vehicles or had them confiscated by their leasing companies, according to Franky Budidarman, owner of one of the island’s two main travel agencies which welcome Chinese tourists.

Mr Budidarman said he had had to cut his office workers’ salaries in half and turned to running a food delivery service and a cafe. “I am grateful to have survived for two years now,” he said. “I sometimes wonder how I could have done that.”

For places that hosted Chinese tourists traveling on group packages, the loss was particularly severe. On Jeju Island, popular among Chinese visitors because they could enter without a visa, the number of tourists arriving from China fell by more than 90% to 103,000 in 2020, from more than one million in 2019. As of January As of September of this year, that number was only around 5,000.

Nearly half of the duty-free shops for Chinese tourists in Jeju have closed, according to Hong Sukkyoun, spokesperson for the Jeju Tourism Association. At the Big Market mall, which once sold island delicacies like chocolate and crafts, all 12 employees except three were made redundant, said An Younghoon, 33, who was among those who lost their jobs in July. .

“When the virus started to spread, we all started counting our days,” he said. “We knew there would be no business soon.”

Chinese visitors are less numerous in Europe, but they have become an increasingly important market in recent years. At the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London, for example, around 1,000 people visited each day at its peak, and at least half of them were from China, said Paul Leharne, the museum’s supervisor.

Since its reopening on May 17, the museum has attracted only 10% of its usual staff. This year, he opened an online store to sell merchandise and souvenirs, about a third of which ship to China, he said.

“We really feel their absence,” said Alfonsina Russo, director of the Coliseum in Rome, referring to Chinese tourists.

Asian tourists, “especially from China,” made up about 40 percent of international visitors to the Colosseum in 2019, according to Ms. Russo. That year, the site had adapted its signs and guides to include the Chinese language, as well as English and Italian.

The number of international tourists arriving in Italy remains down 55%, against a drop of 48% at the European level, according to statistics released in June by ENIT, the national tourism agency. In 2019, two million Chinese tourists visited Italy.

Their disappearance dealt “a devastating blow” to some companies that had invested in this particular group, said Fausto Palombelli, head of the tourism section of Unindustria, an association of companies in the Lazio region, which includes Rome.

Like so many other places, Rome had taken steps to welcome Chinese visitors. He taught his taxi drivers to thank his Chinese customers with a “xie xie”, or thank you in Mandarin. Its main airport, Fiumicino, offered a personal shopping service without value-added tax to attract Chinese travelers, according to Raffaele Pasquini, head of marketing and business development at Aeroporti di Roma, the company that manages Fiumicino.

In France, knowing that it can pass months, even years, before the return of Chinese tourists, some try to keep in contact with potential customers.

Catherine Oden, who works for Atout France, the national institute responsible for promoting France as a tourist destination, said she needs to familiarize herself with Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and Douyin to broadcast activities live. virtual tours such as French cooking lessons and tours. from the Château de Chantilly.

“We want to be present in their minds,” she said. “So that once everything is back to normal, they choose France as their first destination.”

In Paris, long lines of Chinese tourists winding around the boutiques on the Champs-Élysées were once commonplace. “Before the pandemic, we had four Chinese speaking salespeople,” said Khaled Yesli, 28, the commercial director of a luxury boutique on the Champs-Élysées. “We have only one left and no intention of recruiting more.”

Mr Yesli said the store’s top-selling product was once a red and gold metal box with macaroons and hand creams made especially for Chinese tourists. But with lackluster sales during the pandemic, those boxes are now on the bottom shelf.

John yoon, Dera Menra Sijabat, Vo Kieu Bao Uyen, Isabelle Kwai and Amy Chang Dog contributed reports.

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