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Chinese tourists return with an eye on budget, safety

Nik Martin
November 26, 2023

With family incomes squeezed by a weak Chinese economy, international travelers are cutting back on designer goods and luxury hotels.

Chinese tourists pose for a photo at Dresden's Kronentor in eastern Germany
Chinese tourists have started traveling again, but a full recovery could be two years awayImage: Bildagentur-online/Joko/picture alliance

Nearly a year after Beijing said goodbye to zero-COVID — its strict policy of lockdowns and quarantines to contain the spread of the coronavirus — the Chinese public are traveling internationally again in large numbers.

In the first half of 2023, the number of outbound tourists from mainland China reached 40.3 million, according to official statistics. That figure is expected to have grown further in the latter half of the year.

But it's still a far cry from 155 million outbound trips taken by mainland Chinese tourists in 2019 before the pandemic struck.

The Chinese have been a major boon to global tourism as they are regularly the world's highest-spending visitors, enjoying luxury hotels, tours, souvenirs and designer brands.

In 2019, Chinese tourists spent $255 billion (€235 billion) while overseas, according to business consultancy McKinsey & Company. The figure is almost twice as much as Americans, three times more than Germans and almost four times the spending of British tourists.

Chinese tourists cross a street under Paris' Eiffel Tower on August 25, 2023
France was scolded by Beijing after a bus carrying Chinese tourists was attacked in Marseille during protests in JuneImage: Ph Lavieille/MAXPPP/IMAGO

Once flush, now more careful

But with the Chinese economy struggling to recover fully from the pandemic, depleted household savings from a worsening real estate crisis and 20% youth unemployment eating into family budgets, Chinese tourists are becoming a lot more cost-conscious.

A survey from London earlier this month found that the number of Chinese tourists to the UK capital was just 2% shy of the 2019 figure. But their spending was down by 58%, according to the New West End Company, a firm set up to promote the interests of London's West End, where many tourist attractions are located.

The lobby group is keen for the UK government to reinstate tax-free shopping for non-European Union tourists, which was scrapped in 2020. The offer allowed tourists to reclaim the 20% sales tax (VAT) paid on purchases as they leave the country.

Market research firm Tourism Economics put the fall in average spending per visit down to the growing number of independent Chinese travelers, replacing those who normally visit in large tour groups. But the firm said it was likely a short-term blip.

Chinese tourists still pack a punch

"The continued expected rise in incomes and emerging travel class means that over the next 10 years, we expect that there will be an additional 60 million Chinese households per year looking to travel both within China and internationally," Dave Goodger, managing director for the Europe and Middle East at Tourism Economics, told DW.

Gearing up for the return of Chinese tourists

He said during that period, China is expected to make the greatest contribution to long-haul travel growth to Europe in terms of visits and spending, overtaking the US as the most important growth market.

While so-called revenge travel — where consumers prioritize overseas travel after long COVID lockdowns — has buoyed European and US tourism hot spots from travelers based closer to home, Tourism Economics found that long-haul trips to destinations across Europe remain 43% below pre-pandemic levels. Travelers from Asia, and in particular China, are noticeably missing.

Goodger thinks a full recovery of Chinese tourists to Europe could take up to two years, although other research firms think it could happen sooner.

"We anticipate that Chinese travel volumes will regain 2019 levels in 2025," he told DW. "Recovery to long-haul destinations is not expected until 2026, especially for travel to Europe, given the ongoing war in Ukraine and the Middle East."

Chinese travelers shun Thailand 

Other regions and countries are also keen to revive the number of arrivals from China. Thailand, for example, welcomed 11 million Chinese nationals in 2019, but in the first nine months of this year saw fewer than 2.5 million. The Thai government had predicted double that figure.

In September, Thailand waived visa requirements for Chinese nationals. And after a shooting last month at a luxury Bangkok mall killed two people, including a Chinese national, the Thai government proposed joint Thai-Chinese police patrols to help restore the confidence of tourists from Asia's largest economy.

Thailand's Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin (R) hands gifts to Chinese tourists as they arrive at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok on September 25, 2023
Despite a personal welcome from the prime minister, Chinese tourism to Thailand remains lacklusterImage: LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP

Chinese social media networks have been awash with video footage showing attacks on Chinese tourists abroad and the details of the abuse of Chinese workers, many of whom were lured for high-paying jobs in Asia that turned out to be scams. This phenomenon was also highlighted in the popular Chinese movie "No More Bets," which was released in August.

In another concerning incident, a bus carrying 41 Chinese nationals was attacked by masked protesters in the southern French city of Marseille in the summer, leaving several injured. The attack prompted an angry rebuke by Beijing.

COVID theories spurred anti-Chinese sentiment

As COVID first emerged in China, many Chinese travelers were also concerned about venturing abroad for fear of Sinophobia, amid calls by some Western politicians for reparations.

"Perceptions of safety are crucial in destination choice and in determining which destinations have seen the most rapid recovery," Goodger told DW, adding that short-haul travel and more familiar destinations within Asia have been quickest to see a rebound.

Another factor keeping Chinese tourists away until recently was the need for COVID tests to enter many countries, and Goodger said Chinese nationals have also been affected by backlogs of visa and passport applications. This has happened despite a staggered reopening of outbound travel by Beijing.

The phased restoration of international flights from Chinese airports is also slowing the recovery. In November, there were 4,778,271 seats on international flights in and out of China, a 43% decline from during the same period in 2019, according to global travel data provider OAG.

OAG data showed that flights from China to South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan were recovering much faster than those to France, Italy and the US, but all were still far below their pre-COVID levels.

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey