A recent study that looked into Chinese traveller sentiment found Singapore ranked as “the safest outbound destination beyond Greater China”. Photo: AFP
Destinations known
by Mercedes Hutton
Destinations known
by Mercedes Hutton

Will Singapore win the battle for Chinese tourists amid China’s decoupling from US and the world?

  • With all the talk about ‘Cold War II’, Chinese tourists will likely go only where they feel safe and welcomed when travel restrictions are lifted
  • A study ranked the US as having the lowest safety perception among Chinese travellers. Top of the list? Singapore

As far as global forks in the road go, there’s not much that can compete with the coronavirus pandemic. It has affected almost every­one, upended almost every industry and amplified geopolitical issues, among them China’s decoupling from the
United States and, some argue, from the wider world.

Usually discussed in terms of trade, when the barricaded borders of mainland China eventually reopen – post Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the latest, please – there could be another element to this international disengagement: the flow of the country’s tourists.

According to the European Travel Commission’s “long-haul travel baro­meter”, published in June, which “provides forward-looking information about short-term travel trends among potential travellers from Brazil, China, Japan, Russia and the US” to the conti­nent, there was “a particularly weak travel sentiment in […] China”, with only 26 per cent of Chinese respondents expressing confidence in travelling to Europe.

America appears to evoke the same reaction. A recent study that looked into Chinese traveller sentiment, released by digital marketing company Dragon Trail International, found that perceptions about the safety of overseas destinations have declined over the past six months, with the US remaining “the country with the lowest safety perception, rated by 87% as ‘unsafe’”.

Chinese tourists sit and view the Sydney Opera House during the Lunar New Year in Sydney in 2016. Photo: AFP

The report also looked at what exactly might motivate Chinese travellers to venture abroad again, and it’s not good news for destinations with whom China doesn’t enjoy rosy relations: 76 per cent said that official travel advice was the most important factor when it comes to foreign forays. In recent years, China has issued travel warnings against nations such as Australia, South Korea and Canada, often provoked, it seems, by political spats rather than actual conditions on the ground in those countries.

Respondents also said that “Having zero or low infection numbers in the destination [60 per cent], no quarantine on arrival in the destination [56 per cent], and being fully vaccinated in China [52 per cent]” were important elements when considering international travel. So that rules out just about everywhere apart from Macau and
the Maldives.

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This hasn’t stopped destinations from hoping, waiting, longing for the return of Chinese tourists, though. In an upbeat August interview with website Jing Culture & Commerce, Eduardo Santander, CEO of the European Travel Commission, spoke of his optimism for “future Chinese travellers to Europe”.

However, some things will be different, says Santander: “Whistle-stop bus tours covering half a dozen European countries in as many days will no longer dominate” as they will be “replaced by a new mode of slower, interest-based travel, often to lesser-known destinations”.

Jing Culture & Commerce points to domestic travel data to back this up: “ recorded a 400 per cent year-on-year increase in small group travel in 2021 and rural provinces such as Ningxia and Xinjiang have seen bookings triple. Predominantly from post-’90s and post-’00s travellers.”
However, this data misses some fairly important factors. Not only is that 400 per cent jump from 2020, the year when China was largely locked down, but both Ningxia and Xinjiang have benefited from being red tourism destinations; places where proud patriots can go to celebrate the founding of the Communist Party or simply demonstrate their allegiance to the state amid international recriminations.

With an absence of such attractions, western Europe and the US might not see travellers from the Middle Kingdom in the numbers they were accustomed to pre-pandemic, regardless of the allure of their lesser-known sights.

Meanwhile, intensifying chatter concerning Cold War II and the isolationism that accompanies a decoupling could mean that even when travel restrictions are lifted, Chinese tourists will go only where they feel safe and welcomed. And if the Dragon Trai report is indicative of wider attitudes, that means Singapore, which ranked as “the safest outbound destination beyond Greater China”.

It might not have Ningxia’s communist history, nor be a lesser-known destination, but the city state enjoys solid relations with Beijing, and perhaps that’s all that will matter in a post-Covid-19 world.

Hong Kong scenes will be filmed as backdrops for a range of Korean drama and variety programmes made by CJ ENM when travel restrictions are eased, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Photo: Winson Wong

Hong Kong gears up for starring role in K-dramas

This should not come as news to anyone, but Korean cultural offerings are a big deal. The zeal with which Netflix has marketed K-dramas to Western audiences and the ubiquity of K-pop groups is testament to the international appeal of all things South Korean. BTS even went to the UN!
The Hong Kong Tourism Board – which in the age of Sars ran an advertising campaign promising “Hong Kong will take your breath away” – is also in thrall to Korean entertainment, announcing on September 27 that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with CJ ENM, the company behind such television shows as Crash Landing on You, Vincenzo and Youn’s Kitchen, to feature the city “in a variety of shows made by CJ ENM from 2022 until 2024”, according to the press release.

In a statement, Tourism Board chair­man Pang Yiu-kai said: “Our aim is to feature Hong Kong in popular K-drama and variety shows. This will help rein­force Hong Kong’s status as one of the world’s most exciting and interesting destinations when international travel resumes.

“We anticipate competition for tourists will be intense once the pandemic is over, and the HKTB is therefore getting a head start to secure influential media partners for maintaining Hong Kong’s visibility.”

Take that, Nicole Kidman!

Vaccinated tourists had been expected to return to Phu Quoc in October. Photo: Shutterstock

Phu Quoc, Vietnam, pushes back reopening amid lack of vaccines

The reopening of the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc has been pushed back to November “after failing to meet targets for inoculating residents due to insufficient vaccine supplies”, Reuters reported on September 24.

Tourism operators in Phu Quoc had been expecting vaccinated tourists to return from October, when it was thought that all residents would be fully vaccinated. However, local officials said an additional 250,000 to 300,000 doses were needed to achieve herd immunity, according to Reuters.

“Authorities said Phu Quoc would have a phased reopening over six months starting on November 20, with up to three chartered flights touching down per week. Under the plan, the island expects to welcome 3,000-5,000 visitors” during a trial period of six months. “It remained unclear if visitors will have to undergo a seven-day quarantine period as requested by Vietnam’s health ministry.”