Tourism Imbalance Is Vexing Problem in U.S.-China Travel

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The nine-figure outbound travel stats for China are sizzling, along with the multi-billion dollar numbers associated with Chinese travelers spending worldwide. Click through any number of Skift stories and read how domestic and international air routes are expanding, hotels are being constructed and opening. China is still one of the best travel industry stories going.

Except when the subject turns to inbound tourism to China.

Despite featuring a number of bucket list sites like the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army, visitors from outside of Asia aren’t finding China to be their cup of tea.

Nine years ago, a visit to China was on just about every travel list, spearheaded by Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 summer Olympics. But instead of being a transformative, coming-out party for the Chinese capital the way the Games had been for Barcelona and Sydney, almost from the moment the torch went out, the city and the country’s non-Asian tourism fortunes began to decline.

According to the China National Tourism Administration, from January to September 2015, 3.57 million Europeans and 2.3 million North Americans visited China, out of just less than 19 million foreign arrivals. That number is part of a measly one percent growth rate that China tourism has managed over the past decade, at least for the years where clear statistics are available, 2005-2015, Beijing-based Center for China & Globalization wrote in a recent report [http://en.ccg.org.cn/china-ought-to-boost-its-inbound-tourism-vigorously-as-it-sees-a-booming-outbound-tourist-wave-2/].

A LACK OF APPEAL

Like every other aspect of China’s relationship with the rest of the world, the reasons for the country’s lack of appeal to many foreign tourists are complex.

“So much of the tourism infrastructure in someplace like Beijing (and, increasingly, around the world, although that’s another story…) is geared toward the domestic Chinese tourist,” said Jeremiah Jenne, founder and proprietor of Beijing by Foot, an educational walks company.
“This is a big difference from other Asian cities like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, where ‘tourist’ still often means from North America, Europe, or Australia, and so the marketing, the infrastructure, the whole vibe is geared toward that particular culture of travel and expectations. But it’s more than just English-language menus and service without a scowl, it also comes down to how the city is being developed.”

Part of the problem is what’s on offer. China is a hardcore cultural trek with a significant language barrier. Whether as part of a group, for the business traveler, or the independent visitor, China is a tough destination from the moment of arrival. Taxi drivers don’t speak English, and rip-offs are routine. That’s the case even though hotel infrastructure at almost every level is now international standard,

Then there’s the pollution. While China is home to a few of the world’s most polluted cities according to the World Health Organization, Beijing and Shanghai aren’t among them. Thanks to copious news coverage of every “airpocalypse” that descends upon Beijing especially that city has become as synonymous with choking pollution much as Dickensian London was associated with juvenile crime and cruelty. Not a big boost for tourism when the city is referred to as “the big smoke.”

VISA PROGRAM HAS FALLEN SHORT

Measures designed to make travel to parts of China beyond Beijing or Shanghai have been largely unsuccessful. Since 2013, Beijing has offered visa-free, 72-hour stays to passport holders from about 50 nations. However, despite having a target of 20,000 travelers per year, the program has fallen short, attracting only 14,000 its first year.

Considering that Beijing is a jumping-off point for growing destinations like Mongolia and parts of Central Asia, that scheme’s failure seems to indicate that travelers are not just going elsewhere, but actively avoiding China, or at least Beijing. Earlier this year, the program expanded to 144 hours (six days) and allows travelers to venture outside of Beijing to neighboring Tianjin and the surrounding province of Hebei. Similar programs exist for Shanghai as an entry point with travel to Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, and for southern China’s Guangdong province.

Nor have other tourism initiatives, including Times Square advertising featuring China’s two international icons – former NBA star Yao Ming and pandas – or buying a half-hour of programming on New York’s ABC affiliate in 2015.

Part of the problem is bureaucratic. Single entry, double entry, and multiple-entry visas for U.S. passport holders all cost $140 and require four business days to process. Visa applications must be made in person or by an authorized agent. Travelers are required to show both air ticket and hotel reservations at the time of application.

In fairness, part of the reason for the hassle is that People’s Republic of China passport holders face similar fees and application hurdles when visiting the United States. But the average traveler planning a bucket list trip or honeymoon is probably not considering that aspect of Sino-American relations when it’s time to buy plane tickets.

Considering that American citizens can visit almost every other country in East and Southeast Asia visa-free – Bhutan and North Korea are the exceptions – and that Southeast Asian destinations in particular offer good value in U.S. dollar terms, in addition to sights and beaches, then for the money and the prospect of 12-plus hours on a plane, China quickly slides down the list. China’s strengthening currency has helped the country in a number of ways, but not when it comes to attracting tourists.

The remaining issues are psychological. China remains a very safe destination for travelers (except for the usual tourist rip-offs), and foreign guests, on the whole, are treated well. However, the demonization of China during the 2016 U.S. presidential election cast the country in a bad light as a stealer of American jobs and technology.

China had its first big tourism moment in the 1980s, up until the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It returned to form in the latter half of the 1990s, then gained momentum in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. With infrastructure improving, the current lag may simply be a quiet period before it takes another run at the world stage when it hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics.