Chinese tourists are the world's biggest spenders. That arms Beijing with a geopolitical tool. The not-so-secret weapon shows no signs of diminishing in its effectiveness to redirect tourism flows.
Mainland China has jumped from seventh position in 2009 to second — behind only the United States — as the world’s largest source of travelers to overseas destinations, according to Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index on where travelers originate, released last month.
Although the U.S. generates more travelers, Chinese tourists are the world’s largest spenders, expending $228 billion in 2017, compared with $120 billion by Americans, UNWTO’s World Tourism Barometer March/April 2018 shows.
Destinations know this. So does Beijing, which is increasingly wielding the tourism weapon, either in the form of travel bans, travel warnings, or even political announcements in the state media, which can turn off the tap of Chinese tourists to a destination. The most recent examples include suspending a program that allows individual tourists to travel to Taiwan, or cautioning citizens, including students, against travel to or studying in the U.S.
The weapon stings. Just ask Palau, where a China travel ban, due to its support of Taiwan, decimated the tiny island’s top market in 2017 and forced airlines to axe links. Or Jeju Island, a big casualty in the 2017 spat between China and South Korea over a missile system.
There is a good argument that says the weapon is losing its sting as Chinese tourists become wealthier and more confident to travel independently rather than in group tours. But while that may be true of the sophisticated repeat travelers, the fact remains China has many more millions that are first-time travelers, and they are convenient for countries wanting a quick boost in earnings via the tourism route.
This is why the not-so-secret tourism weapon of China will remain sharp.
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Photo credit: Hong Kong protests. Chinese outbound travelers are a powerful geopolitical tool for China. Bloomberg