Foreign tourists enjoy a city tour by cyclos in downtown Hanoi, but fewer people from China now visit Vietnam in the wake of deadly anti-Chinese riots that broke out in May. Photo: AFP

Chinese tourists abandon Vietnam in droves over bitter maritime row

Travel warning issued by Beijing after oil rig dispute sparked riots sees visitor numbers dwindle


For years Nguyen Huu Son has guided Chinese tourists around Vietnam's popular coastal city Danang, but a bitter maritime dispute between Hanoi and Beijing means he is now out of work.

Relations between the communist neighbours plunged to their lowest point in decades when Beijing moved a deep-sea oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea in early May, triggering deadly riots in Vietnam.

The rig was withdrawn last week. But the Chinese tourists have not returned.

"It's never been this bad before ... my company has almost no customers, no work," Son said.

Son's salary has been cut by two-thirds, but he feels "embarrassed" to take even this reduced pay package as he knows his company is not making any money at all.

"We focus on individual travellers, not tour groups, and 100 per cent of them cancelled ... I have nothing to do with my time," he said, adding that he was considering a change of career.

After the mid-May riots, in which China says four of its nationals were killed, Beijing evacuated thousands of citizens and issued a "yellow" travel warning for Vietnam.

While this was reasonable in the immediate aftermath of the riots - which mostly affected Taiwanese and South Korean businesses - maintaining the travel warning when any danger to tourists had passed smacks of politics, said Professor Jonathan London at City University of Hong Kong. "It reminds one of Beijing's campaign to reduce mainland tourism to the Philippines," London said, referring the economic fallout from the 2012 stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal.

After a dispute over the uninhabited shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island, Beijing warned its citizens about travel safety in the Philippines, prompting mass cancellations.

Chinese tourist arrivals to Vietnam were down 29.5 per cent in June from the previous month, according to official figures.

In June, 136,726 Chinese visited Vietnam, down from 194,018 in May and 216,659 in April this year, the figures show.

Vietnam would continue tourism promotion efforts in China, aiming to show "Vietnam is a safe destination", tourism official Nguyen Manh Cuong said.

Tourism is an important source of revenue for communist Vietnam, contributing nearly six per cent of the country's gross domestic product in 2013, official statistics show.

Chinese visitors make up the largest single group of arrivals - more than 1.1 million in 2014 overall, despite the sharp fall off after May. The next largest group, South Koreans, saw 405,634 arrivals.

The average Chinese visitor stays five days and spends US$300 if they travel by land, or US$700 if they have arrived by air, Cuong said.

This compares to an average stay of about 10 days by European or American tourists, who spend up to US$3,000 during that period, official figures show.

The fall in Chinese arrivals after the maritime dispute erupted is understandable as Beijing uses outbound tourism as a "negative sanction", according to Tony Tse, a professor at the school of hotel and tourism management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

"Outbound tourism can be used by the Chinese government to show its aggression," he said in a 2013 paper, citing the examples of the Philippines and Japan -where tourism was hard hit after a 2012 dispute with the latter over the Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyus in China.

"The hostility in withholding tourism acts like a punishment and China is powerful enough to exercise this kind of sanction," Tse wrote in the paper on how China uses outbound tourism as a form of diplomacy.

Vietnamese tourists had also been cancelling trips to China in droves, although the government had not issued any travel warning, said one travel agent who declined to be named.

"It's a way to express patriotism. Vietnamese like travelling in China ... but now they cancel to show their patriotism," he said.

Tran Thi Lan, 54, a primary schoolteacher from central Nghe An province, had booked a trip to China for this summer which she was "very excited" about.

"We decided to cancel, not the tour operator. The Chinese government's behaviour was unacceptable," she said.

"We decided not to go to show our attitude. We don't want to go on holiday to a country that is invading our waters."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Chinese tourists abandon Vietnam