HONG KONG - China, whose blistering growth last year made it the world's
second-biggest economy while much of the industrialized world struggled with
recession, is now suffering an unusual deficit - tourist dollars.
The Chinese economy expanded 8.7% last year, according to government
data released this week, easily beating the official target of 8%, after blistering 10.7%
growth in the fourth quarter.
Growing incomes and more opportunity to travel by the middle classes resulted
in Chinese spending US$42 billion overseas in
2009, $4 billion more than the $38 billion spent by visitors to the country.
"The deficit in the tourism service trade is a new sign saying that China is
turning into a notable tourist source market, in addition to being an important
destination," Dai Bin, deputy head of the China Tourism Academy, told China
About 47 million trips were made by mainland tourists to overseas destinations
last year, up 3.6% from 2008, according to the China Tourism Academy, the
think-tank for China's tourism authority. The number of folk heading in the
opposite direction, largely from countries such as the United States, Japan and
South Korea feeling the impact of the global financial crisis, in contrast
shrank 3% to 126 million overseas tourists.
The trend looks set to continue, with China forecast to be the world's
fourth-largest source of outbound tourists by 2020, with 100 million Chinese
tourists traveling abroad, according to the United Nations World Tourism
Increased spending power and more relaxed rules on traveling outside China have
helped to boost the number of Chinese tourists, said Zhang Hui, dean of tourism
management at Beijing International Studies University.
Until recently, the government in Beijing severely restricted permission for
its people to travel. Rules have been gradually eased over the years so that
groups and then individuals could travel as tourists to Hong Kong, then Macau
and Taiwan. Since then, a program known as Approved Destination Status (ADS)
has grown from the early 1990s to include more than 100 countries.
One of the most recent destination countries to be granted ADS is the United
States, with Chinese tour groups allowed to travel there since June, and with
an easing of US visa policy, the number of mainland tourists to the US has
grown quickly. Chen Hongxia, who runs an official tourism office in Beijing for
Nevada, home to Las Vegas, estimates that about 750,000 Chinese mainlanders
went to the US last year, up about 20% from 2008.
Eased visa costs are also helping to boost visits to other countries. Since
March last year, tourists to Thailand need not pay the previous charge of 230
yuan (US$33) in visa fees, and Zhang expects more countries to simplify entry
procedures this year.
Helping that process is the establishment of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area,
which came into effect on January 1. The FTA is working towards standard
tariffs and other charges involved in trade between China and the 10-member
Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and China's Commerce Ministry and its
ASEAN counterparts have been working on making it easier to travel within the
"Visa requirements in many countries make Chinese tourists discriminated
against and reduce their desire to travel," Zhang said.
Close neighbor Japan is also seeking to attract more of the increasingly
free-spending Chinese. Japanese Tourism Minister Seiji Maehara said in a
meeting with his Chinese counterpart Shao Qiwei last October that he wanted to
ease visa requirements for Chinese tourists.
Japan started issuing visas to Chinese mainlanders for group trips in 2000 and
last July widened its visa policy to individual Chinese travelers from
Guangdong, Shanghai and Beijing - three cities that are important centers of
business, industry and finance.
These are also relatively affluent cities, of some importance given that
Japan's issuance of tourist visas to individual Chinese travelers is limited to
people with an annual income of more than 250,000 yuan - the intention, say the
Japanese, is to reduce the possibility of tourists overstaying.
Tokyo hopes its visa policy will help to attract another 250,000 Chinese
visitors a year, in addition to the 1 million that arrived in 2008.
Japan and Southeast Asian countries were the two destinations most in demand by
travelers from finance hub Shanghai during China's "Golden Week" National Day
holiday last October 1, said Zhao Dexiang, of Shanghai International Travel
This year, in the run-up to the Chinese, or Lunar, New Year holiday starting
from February 14, it is Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), that is
rising fast in the popularity stakes, with wealthy Chinese tourists looking to
take advantage of price cuts at the debt-hit destination. The UAE was granted
ADS last September.
A sales manager at the China International Travel Service (CITS) Co in Beijing
said that due to debt restructuring in Dubai, many top hotels had cut prices
for tour packages. CITS is promoting a five-day Dubai tour for about 6,900
yuan, down by about 30% from about 10,000 yuan last year. "They are all fully
booked, but we still get inquiries every day," Zhang said. The Top View Holiday
and Tourism, a business partner of Dubai Tourism Bureau, is promoting a
five-day Dubai tour for 20,000 yuan.
Even without such promotions, about 150,000 Chinese tourists visited Dubai last
year, up 55% from 2008, said Gao Zichun, from the Dubai Tourism Bureau's
While Dubai offers luxury shopping, it has a long way to go before it overtakes
Hong Kong, which offers similar-quality outlets, Macau with its fancy casinos
and Taiwan with its cultural attractions.
Hong Kong pulls in 50% of outbound mainland travelers and Macau 30%, according
to ctrip.com, China's largest online travel service. (Ctrip is itself
increasingly recognized as a beneficiary of the fast-increasing tourist trade -
its Nasdaq-listed share price last year quadrupled from about 10 US cents to
just below 40 cents.)
Taiwan, in third spot, is benefiting from the easing of political tensions and
the introduction of direct flights between it and the mainland last August -
travelers previously had to use a third destination such as Hong Kong. Mainland
and Taiwan carriers now operate as many as 270 flights per week between the
formerly hostile territories.
The contrast between China's outgoing population and the outlook for the
destination countries could hardly be starker. China's major sources for
tourists, such as Japan, South Korea and the United States, have seen travelers
reduce trips and cut travel expenses as their economies struggle through
"Countries like South Korea even asked their citizens to cut overseas travel to
help combat the recession," said a spokesman for the China National Tourism
Olivia Chung is a senior Asia Times Online reporter.