“Chinese tourists will once again be one of the most welcome groups of guests while academic and commercial partnerships between China and the world will become even closer. The choices made by governments in the face of the coronavirus emergency may very well determine their prospects for cooperation with China in the future.”
So wrote James Liang, co-founder and executive chairman of China’s largest travel agency, Trip.com Group, in an opinion in the South China Morning Post on February 8. Liang, also a part-time professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, said he is calling “for calm from the governments of the world” in this opinion.
But the message of a veiled threat from China has also been sent across. It serves as a warning to countries, or validates what they already have sensed, which accounts for the wide disparity in how governments have moved to restrict entry of Chinese visitors, torn as they are between protecting citizens and a major tourism and economic partner.
According to Liang, the consular department of China’s foreign affairs ministry has grouped these restrictions into three categories. Category I bars entry to all Chinese and foreign nationals who have been in China over the past fortnight, through such measures as visa refusals and quarantine. Countries that do so include the U.S., Australia, Singapore, Russia, and Mongolia.
Category II bars entry only to travelers who have recently been to Hubei province, whose capital Wuhan was where the virus started. Japan, South Korea and Malaysia are among countries that do this. Category III does not deny entry to Chinese nationals, instead do border health checks such as temperature tests and isolate symptomatic individuals.
“That most countries have chosen not to impose draconian blanket restrictions on Chinese travelers is likely to have been decisions made in consideration of the countries’ long-term economic cooperation, and confidence in their own medical systems and epidemic control capacities. In line with recommendations by the World Health Organization, many governments have made the rational choice of not restricting travel and trade with China too much in the face of the epidemic,” wrote Liang.
Of the countries doing blanket bans, Liang said “in the short-term, these nations will have ostensibly safeguarded their security, but in the long term, they will adversely affect cooperation with China across all areas.”
In what ways can China hit back post-coronavirus?
The most obvious way is to curtail China outbound travel to those countries it deems mean. Chinese tourists are the world’s biggest spenders, and the world’s second largest source of travelers to overseas destinations after the US. This arms Beijing with an economic weapon to shape travel flows, which it has wielded.
Examples include in 2017 when Beijing told travel agencies to stop selling group packages to South Korea after the country let the US deploy the antimissile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, which China saw as a security threat. In 2017 China also banned tours to Palau, which recognizes Taiwan. In 2019 it stopped individual travel from 47 Chinese cities to Taiwan, citing the state of relations between the two sides. In also issued warnings last year against travel to the U.S. as the trade war escalated.
Curtailing overseas education, a market with strong multiplier effect on travel and tourism, is another area. Beijing could issue travel warnings (as it did for the U.S.) to Chinese students or recommend one country over another. The U.S. and Australia are among countries with high populations of Chinese students. More than 350,000 Chinese students are pursuing higher education in the U.S. and 10,000 American students are enrolled in academic programs in China. In Australia, Chinese students comprise 31 percent of all international students, which totaled 525,054 in 2018.
And it need not be just outbound. China itself is becoming a magnet for international students. In 2017, 489,200 internationals students furthered their studies in China, an increase of more than 10 percent for the second consecutive year, according to China’s Ministry of Education. The number of degree students reached 241,500 (49.4 percent of the total), up 15 percent year-on-year. China could restrict intakes from countries it deems uncooperative during the coronavirus or grant scholarships only to students from countries it favors.
Same goes for medical tourism, where Chinese travel agencies could be promoting more wellness and medical trips to, say, Category III Thailand than Category 1 Singapore.
Then, there’s the China Belt and Road Initiative that funds infrastructure development including rails, roads, ports, airports — among projects that benefit travel and tourism — in Asia, albeit some of the countries are now wary of the dangers of being over-indebted to China.
A whole coastal town in south Cambodia called Sihanoukville has been transformed, with Chinese-run hotels, apartments and restaurants, and China as the number one market. With other on-going projects under the Belt and Road, can Cambodia afford to offend China?
But a China tit-for-tat paranoia is the last thing we need as countries battle to contain and rid off the coronavirus. While Liang’s warning is not baseless, China might see no reason to hit back when the situation has turned calm and recovery is in place.
Just the opposite may happen: a China that is mindful that countries are realizing the risks of depending too much on it, thereby it will go into an engagement mode than an alienation tactic.
Roy Graff, a China outbound tourism “evangelist” who helps Western destinations attract Chinese visitors, makes a good point that China has so far used the tourism card in political cases.
“As a public health crisis, this is a totally different situation to the Huawei arrest for Canada, or the trade war for the U.S., or the missile defense system for South Korea — all examples of things that have hurt tourism in recent years,” said Graff, managing director EMEA and chief marketing officer of Dragon Trail Interactive, based in London.
“It seems like the U.S. has seen some negative media attention in China for the travel ban, but there are so many countries with travel restrictions now — Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Israel, just to name a few — it’s not realistic to go after all of them, especially when the Chinese government itself was the first to restrict outbound travel,” he added.
“The Chinese government could issue safety warnings about travel to other countries as retaliation but they are generally not very effective, as people do their own research.”