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Mainland Chinese travelers are now putting “friendliness” as the top factor influencing their willingness to travel overseas, above even the absence of Covid-19 cases in a destination and travel protocols and encumbrances, a recent survey by Chinese data and marketing agency Dragon Trail has shown.

They also deem the United States as by far the most unsafe destination, followed by Canada, Australia and the UK. As it happens, these are countries whose relations with China have soured, be it over trade, Huawei, Hong Kong or other political issues.

The findings come as so-called “anti-Asian hate” is rising in the U.S. Tuesday’s Atlanta shooting rampage that killed eight people, six of whom were Asians, including four Koreans, serves as another red flag, albeit at press time police are still investigating the motive.

Stop AAPI Hate, a center that tracks incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, reports close to 4,000 hate crimes from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021. It says this is only a fraction that actually occurred. Discriminations include verbal harassment, shunning, physical assault, civil rights violations such as refusal of service, and online harassment.

Although incidents involve Asian communities living abroad, their news coverage spreads like wild fire. Within four hours of the Atlanta shooting, for example, a hashtag on it appeared on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo garnering 764,000 views, noted Anita Chan, CEO of Compass Edge, a company that helps hotels reach Chinese independent travelers.

Thin Line

There’s now a thin line between unwelcoming and unsafe. It used to be that unfriendly does not mean unsafe. But now unfriendliness has joined a motley mix of other safety concerns, such as political/civil unrest, robbery and terrorism, to seal the perception that the U.S. is a no-go when China outbound travel rebounds. China had been a major source market for the U.S. before the pandemic.

More than 80 percent of respondents in the survey, conducted from February 22 to March 3 by Dragon Trail International, rated the U.S. as unsafe. Next-in-line, Canada,  ranked unsafe by 54 percent, Australia 48 percent and the UK, 47 percent of respondents.

And this need not necessarily be sentiments held only by mainland Chinese but Asians elsewhere, particularly those who are Chinese-looking. A Booking.com survey finds that nearly 70 percent of Asian travelers said friendliness of locals would factor into their decision-making process, with 84 percent saying “personal safety” would influence their choice of destination.

“Indeed, these [friendliness and safety] are the two factors I will consider when bringing tourists from East to West,” said Peter Hsiao, managing director for Asia-Pacific at Europe Express Travel Service. The tour operator handles leisure and business groups from Asia and China to Europe, such as hosting Amway China Overseas Seminar for 1,200 delegates in Vienna in 2007

The root of rising Sinophobia lies in Wuhan being the origin of the pandemic, and the xenophobia need not play out just in Western countries but also Asia, as Skift reported early last year. That it has escalated in the US has been widely blamed on Trump’s rhetoric and messaging such as calling Covid-19 the “China virus” or the “kung flu” virus.

“When you have a leader of a country giving hate speech against China, that message is stronger than incidents of hate attacks themselves,” said Mengfan Wang, research manager for Dragon Trail International.

The first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, Jeremy Lin, on Wednesday spoke out on this in an interview with CNN following the Atlanta shootings. He said those racist terms by Trump stoke anger and violence against the Asian-American community. Lin’s remarks came weeks after he went public about a player who called him “coronavirus” on the court.

“The virus has unfortunately unleashed a lot of anti-Asian racism around the world, with verbal and physical attacks on Chinese (and Asians) in North America, Australia, and Europe,” said Sienna Parulis-Cook, director of marketing and communications for Dragon Trail International. “Many of these have received ample media coverage in China/Chinese-language sources. As early as January last year, there were reports of Chinese students being physically assaulted in Germany and the UK because of the virus, and these kinds of stories have continued ever since.

“There are also numerous surveys that have come out recently, from the UK, the U.S. (and Canada, such as this one) showing that people’s opinions towards China are at historic lows. The virus certainly plays into this, but also negative news coverage overseas about China’s politics and portrayal as an economic threat.”

So, between frequent mass shootings, civil unrests, Covid-19 and the “threat” of China, there’s been plenty to feed the Chinese media.“Now, anti-Asian racially motivated violence can be added into this mix of news that makes the U.S. look like a particularly dangerous place,” she said.

Outbound Rebound

For Visit USA this must be a nightmare, coming as it is at a time China outbound travel is expected to restart soon.

A China Tourism Academy report released last month predicts this will happen on a large scale in the second half of 2021, with outbound tipped to be at about 30 percent of 2019’s level by yearend.

Likewise, ForwardKeys expects China outbound to be 25 percent of its size this year and gradually climbing to full recovery by 2026.

A big factor to jumpstart the outbound flow is China’s launch this month of a vaccine passport, accessed through WeChat, for residents who have been inoculated. Talks are said to be underway between China and other countries for mutual recognition.

While this is a good first step, there are challenges. China’s 14-day strict quarantine requirements upon return has not been lifted. Neither has a ban on unnecessary international travel and on Chinese travel agencies selling group and flight+hotel tours.

The lifting of these rules depends on a lot of if’s. For example, if asymptomatic transmission is still possible after being vaccinated, this could seriously impact Chinese outbound travel and the lifting of any quarantine requirements, said Parulis-Cook.

“The Chinese government has been very successful so far in containing the original and subsequent outbreaks of the virus and is highly unlikely to risk allowing a surge in imported cases to throw this into jeopardy,” she said.

Europe Express’s Hsiao agrees. “Due to the current pandemic situation in Europe, it’s difficult to predict if the Chinese government will ease restrictions so soon. Their focus now is on the domestic economy and they don’t want to risk that by opening borders,” he said.

“Even if the EU comes up with a vaccine passport [an ongoing discussion], and welcomes Chinese tourists, the decision is still in China government’s hand. As long as they don’t ease the 14 or even 21 days quarantine rule in some cases, it’s very difficult to travel again. It’s not only an economic, but a political decision.

A lot of China’s outbound market this year will be to Macau, which reopened to the mainland on February 23 and is the only destination where Chinese will not have to quarantine upon return. “Promotions and discounts have also boosted demand for Macau,” said Nan Dai, ForwardKeys’ market analyst.

She expects travel to Asia to bounce back faster than long-haul. “Many Asian destinations have handled the crisis better than other countries outside the region. People will feel safer going to places where there are similar levels of control over the crisis,” she said.

Still Aspirational

Dragon Trail’s survey shows Asia is the most preferred region for Chinese travelers, followed by Europe and, surprisingly, the US. This reflects how the U.S. is still aspirational for Chinese travelers despite current fears about unfriendliness and safety issues.

Which means there is still time and opportunity to reach out and alleviate concerns. While there’s little tourism boards can do to prevent hate crimes, there are a few approaches they can take to woo Chinese travelers, said Dragon Tail’s Parulis-Cook, whose company counts tourism bodies and hotels keen to tap China outbound.

One is by being friendly, she said, citing Thailand as an example. At the start of the pandemic, the Tourism Authority of Thailand created a short video of all its staff sending best wishes to China in Mandarin language, which was warmly received.

“We also saw a number of other travel brands doing similar things, including Crown and Champa Resorts in the Maldives, which got staff to hold up signs that said ‘Zhongguo jiayou!’ (‘Keep going, China!’),” said Parulis-Cook.

But she believes the most the most effective way to prove that your destination is friendly to Chinese is to get them to say so. She singled out Edinburgh Tourism Action Group as a prime example. In 2018, a survey showed Edinburgh, which has a strong Chinese student community, as the UK’s “kindest city.” The group published this accolade on WeChat, backed by current and former Chinese residents sharing stories of people being kind to them in Edinburgh.

“Since then, they have used this tactic of calling on the local Chinese community to share positive stories and beautiful photos of Edinburgh quite regularly. There’s always a lot of engagement with these posts on WeChat and Weibo, creating a positive image for the city,” said Parulis-Cook.

America could heed that advice.

Photo Credit: The neon lights of Shanghai. Dickson Phua / Flickr